Tuesday 28 April

Sections of the media came under fire this morning for failing to cover or covering very superficially the scandal revealed by Panorama last night. This centred on the discovery that the government was counting each single glove as an item of PPE in order to misrepresent the figures and imply they were meeting demand when this has manifestly not been the case. Surely one of the most surprising things about this, given these days of investigative journalism and social media, is the apparent assumption that it wouldn’t come to light. Minister Victoria Atkins, who responded not by answering the question but with ‘we’re following the science’, got a much easier ride on Today than on Piers Morgan’s GMB. A Today programme listener tweeted: ‘Victoria Atkins safeguarding minister? What does that mean? Safeguarding this government’s rapidly deteriorating reputation because they’re certainly not safeguarding anyone else at the moment?’

Social media and personal stories enable us to know what’s going on ‘at the coalface’ rather than solely at the level of official narrative. A GP tweeted: ‘The PPE scandal: far too little too late. Staff don’t need sympathy. Last night’s Panorama should be watched by everyone. In my visit to my breathless elderly patient yesterday, I wore a visor made by a local school, gloves, a surgical mask & a flimsy apron from Amazon’.

A third of COVID deaths are now said to be in care homes, where there is no or insufficient PPE. Again, we need regular and accurate statistics on the total numbers of deaths (ie including care homes and community), not just daily hospital figures in order to get the complete picture. Given the importance of testing, it’s worrying that efforts to increase it are being led by a hereditary peer and former corporate lobbyist, Lord Bethell, who gave money to Matt Hancock’s failed Conservative party leadership campaign. This smacks of cronyism and conflict of interest.

At 11 am there was the minute’s silence to mark the deaths of NHS and frontline workers, an event organised by unions and, we were told, ‘observed by the PM and senior politicians’. This observation was found hypocritical in some quarters, one tweeting: ‘Boris Johnson tweeting his minute’s silence makes my blood boil. It was his dither and delay, his libertarianism, he resisted lockdown. It cost 40,000 unnecessary lives and killed the economy! Johnson’ dither compounded govt failure to prepare!’

Meanwhile, the lockdown exit debate rumbles on and there was a rather good analogy earlier from a garden centre business representative, lamenting the lack of level playing field regarding business closures: ‘we’re locked in the changing room with no referee’.

Increasingly, the over-generalised advice for over-70s to ‘stay at home’ is being criticised by Lord Blunkett and many others for its arbitrariness, not treating them like grown ups, discriminating against them and so on. As has been widely acknowledged, some over 70s are far fitter than some in their 50s, so it doesn’t make sense to lump them all together. This tendency to conflate age with incapacity does also convey quite a powerful message about policymakers’ attitudes towards the older generation.  Older people, especially those living alone, are more likely to experience damage to their mental health through loneliness and enforced isolation.

Tonight’s Downing Street Briefing was striking for a number of reasons: it was headed by Matt Hancock rather than the PM; there were two (!) questions from ‘the public’ (one yesterday); and Hancock refused to apologise for the care home deaths on his watch. During a session which saw a number of obfuscatory and delaying tactics, eg ‘that’s a very good question’ and ploys to artificially identify with and disarm the questioner (‘as a father of three young children myself’), he said ‘That’s unreasonable as a question’ when invited to apologise to the relatives of those having died in care homes. That journalist was not given a chance to challenge that response.

We are now hearing much more in the media, not before time, about mental health difficulties due to or worsening during lockdown. Over 800 people responded to charity Rethink’s survey, the results highlighting the importance of sustained investment in mental health services when this area has experienced long-term funding deficits. ‘We’re calling for mental health to be a government priority during COVID19.’ Sceptics could be forgiven for wondering how close to a reality this could be, since ten years and more of similar pleas have fallen on deaf ears. If mental health difficulties were more visible it might be a different story!

Monday 27 April

As the PM returned to work today, interestingly promising to be transparent and to involve opposition parties in lockdown exit planning, the Guardian suggested 6 urgent tasks lay in his already challenging in-tray. Besides the obvious lockdown strategy (about which ministers are said to disagree), the other 5 concern testing (claim of reaching 100,000 a day and to what extent to continue standing behind Matt Hancock); revisiting the decision-making process (currently somewhat scattered between ministers and committees) and whether Dominic Cummings should continue attending SAGE; assessing his own handling of the crisis; what to do about the Brexit talks and how to deal with the report of the investigation into the Priti Patel bullying allegations. Well timed was Dr Xand van Tulleken’s comment on the Channel 4 ending lockdown programme last night:  ‘Scientists can give advice but we do need clear leadership from government’.

Meanwhile, palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke (who smashed it on Question Time recently) tweeted: ‘Dear Boris Johnson, 1. The UK has one of the worst #COVID19 death rates in the world 2. 20k people have died already – probably double that 3. Lockdown was delayed 4. PPE & testing are inadequate 5. Frontline staff are dying. How can you possibly spin this is a success?’

One of the shocking things about the crisis has been the massive rise in domestic violence and the news that during the first three weeks of lockdown 14 women and three children were killed. The Met had been arresting around 100 people a day for domestic abuse in the period just prior to lockdown.  Although relationships could understandably come under some strain during this very strange time, it’s disturbing to find that so many, which may look fine from the outside, only survived on the basis of partners spending less time together, a very fragile basis indeed. Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “Staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn’t safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse. Our cross-party committee is calling for an urgent action plan from government setting out practical measures to tackle domestic abuse as an integrated part of the fight against Covid-19’. These would include guaranteed safe housing for the women and children at risk of abuse.

She rightly alluded to the significant mental health burden domestic abuse leaves in its wake. ‘The emotional, physical and social scars from domestic abuse can last a lifetime. If we don’t act to tackle it now, we will feel the consequences of rising abuse during the coronavirus crisis for many years to come.’ The operative word is surely ‘urgent’ action: too often such measures are slow to be implemented, leading to the risk of more unnecessary deaths.

Ahead of his new Channel 4 show tonight, Grayson’s Art Club, about inspiring people to be creative and ‘using the creative process as a kind of therapy’, Grayson Perry attracted some criticism for saying ‘there’s no excuse for people not doing art’ (during this time). This lockdown period has apparently led to some division of opinion on whether we should regard simply getting through the day as enough, or whether we should be using the time productively to get stuff done, declutter our homes, achieve something, learn a language or write a book. Some are feeling shamed (as the Listening Project showed yesterday) by exhortations to achieve (in capital letters) when they don’t feel like attempting these things and don’t appreciate being put under pressure to do so. A Facebook post suggested that such achievements are associated with the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (self-fulfilment), whereas we are actually towards the bottom of that pyramid, ie safety needs. I’m not sure about that: while it’s clear that some are indeed in this category and others may be run off their feet trying to earn money, look after children and/or elderly relatives, etc, many of us aren’t and do have additional time. While we all need some downtime and comfort zone, of course, it’s not conducive to our personal growth and mental wellbeing to spend too much time there eg on the sofa for hours bingeing on tv. Whatever we think of Grayson Perry, though, he did come out with a compelling definition of art: ‘Art is one person’s unconscious to another’s’.

I’ve long felt appreciating nature to be an important ingredient of mental wellbeing so it was good to hear journalist Isabel Hardman interviewed on the Today programme about her new book – (The Natural Health Service – what the great outdoors can do for your mind). Diagnosed with PTSD in 2016, she used exercise and tuning into nature alongside traditional treatment as part of her recovery from anxiety and depression. The importance of nature is so underrated and perhaps more so at this time it’s therapeutic to be reminded of its permanence in a sea of uncertainty: each season follows a pattern, birds are singing, plants and trees are coming into bud, their leaves unfurling and the candle-like flowers of chestnut trees are dominating parks and open spaces. Hardman stressed that nature isn’t a cure-all but it can help prevent mental illness taking hold and help those already experiencing mental ill-health. She stressed the need to re-focus as people can be so caught up in their heads and their devices they simply don’t notice the natural world around them. ‘The world is a lot richer than they would have imagined’. If you want to listen to that interview it’s about 1 hour 40 minutes into the Today programme.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000hmm8

Finally, it’s interesting that (part of the new transparent and consultative approach?) tonight’s Downing Street briefing included a question from the public for the first time. I’d be interested to know how YouGov selected the question(s),which was:

If the 5 steps are met, is being able to hug closest family one of the first steps out of lockdown?

One regular listener at least wasn’t convinced by this innovation, tweeting: ‘it’s another gesture. Gesture politics, slogans, headline-grabbing mini-initiatives. All to replace having a proper well-implemented strategy for the past 2 months.’

Sunday 26 April

Continuing the theme for a moment of one of the hidden costs of the pandemic (worsening symptoms and deaths due to the postponement or cancellation of urgent treatment for life threatening conditions, mental health crises etc), Independent health correspondent Shaun Lintern challenged the BBC this morning, tweeting: ‘BBC News this morning saying NHS intensive care units have coped. That is not true. NHS has coped because tens of thousands of operations have been cancelled and those areas turned into makeshift ICUs with stretched staffing ratios and machines. We need to be honest about this.’  He was supported by London GP and health campaigner Louise Irvine:

‘You are right. The lack of honesty is breathtaking. The NHS is not coping – or only “coping” because so many others are being denied care. My friend, with prostate cancer, has had his treatment delayed for six months, for example.’

Broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond added:

‘One of the lessons of this pandemic is that staff well-being is not a priority in health and care services. It needs to be, & fast. In addition to the lack of PPE, there could be huge volumes of burnout & post-traumatic stress amongst frontline staff. Help them soon or lose them.’ Staff are supposed to be eligible for counselling, paid for in part by the money raised by Captain Tom Moore and others for NHS charities, but it’s unclear how this is working ‘on the ground’. Let’s hope it gets resolved soon.

On mental health specifically, the crisis has highlighted longstanding problems with resourcing and service provision and many service users are saying they aren’t getting the support they need, which would be frightening for them. Alex Thomson, liaison psychiatrist, tweeted earlier what sounds like a recipe for root and branch reform:

‘The mental health response to COVID19 must include – Provision for people who have, and who develop, severe mental illnesses -Recognition that mental health care is for ALL, not just people already ill -Consistent standards of quality -Evidence-based treatment, not just ‘support’ -Mainstreaming of services to avoid two-tier staff/non-staff or COVID/non-COVID quality gap -Permanent increase in resources, staffing, skills, therapies -Strong public mental health, community and structural approaches.’

All very important, especially provision of all NICE-approved talking therapies (not just CBT) but perhaps the most pressing, because it supports the secondary service and starts at the beginning in primary care is ‘Strong public mental health, community and structural approaches.’ Unfortunately, the current primary care model, IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) is based largely upon the non-relational model of CBT and has long waiting lists, meaning that many patients go without help or the kind of help they need.

Despite the (temporary, we hope) disappearance from the radio schedules of regular programmes such as Saturday Review and the Archers, there’s still much worthwhile to listen to. The Listening Project is a Radio 4 initiative offering a snapshot of contemporary Britain, in which people across the UK volunteer to have a conversation. These conversations are collated and archived by the British Library, in order to capture the essence of life in the early 21st century. Sounds a bit like the mass observation project of the 1930s. Today’s focused on personal experience of lockdown and it was interesting to hear presenter Fi Glover say ‘we’re all having those days when we can’t face the world’ (surprising because I suspect many would not want to admit this although it’s helpful to share experience). One interviewee said this manifested in not getting out of bed all day and feeling shamed by exhortations to use the time productively, eg learning a language.

Despite all the good stuff going on, said another, ‘there’s still an undercurrent of fear’. He referenced The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919), which took me back to undergraduate days, learning about the concept of courtly love, and which reminded him how intensely life was lived in the Middle Ages.

Wikipedia explains: ‘In the book, Huizinga presents the idea that the exaggerated formality and romanticism of late medieval court society was a defence mechanism against the constantly increasing violence and brutality of general society. He saw the period as one of pessimism, cultural exhaustion, and nostalgia, rather than of rebirth and optimism.’

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hfqz

For some light relief and perhaps a mindful experience, there’s an interesting example this afternoon of ‘slow radio’, which developed from the original slow movement focusing on food. It traces the flooding of the Kielder Valley in Northumberland, its natural world soundtrack including running water, birdsong, folk music and so on. Apart from anything else, I love those local accents.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hmxn

Two interesting if sobering programmes feature in the tv schedules tonight: at 8 pm on Channel 4, Dr Xand van Tulleken, one of those televisual twins, explores what the end of lockdown could look like, talking to ministers, scientists and other experts. It includes the crucial question of how long restrictions will last and what form might they take. It will be good to see how he tackles this subject, compared with the recent Radio 4 series Fallout.

In the bonnets slot on BBC2 at 9 pm, ‘Stacey Dooley talks to police, dealers and smugglers to learn about the drug supply chain and how it operates, as well as meeting a Colombian drug boss to find out why Southern Spain sees so much cocaine. It’s a shock to hear how much of it will end up in Britain’, says the Radio Times.

Finally, many will be wondering what the PM’s return to work tomorrow will bring and perhaps could be forgiven if they don’t find the prospect reassuring.

Saturday 25 April

While people are still processing the news about Dominic Cummings’s attendance at SAGE meetings, it emerged via a confidential Cabinet Office briefing leaked to the Guardian that Ministers were warned last year the UK must have a robust plan to deal with a pandemic virus and its potentially catastrophic social and economic consequences. This leak comes as the UK’s hospital death toll from coronavirus exceeded the 20,000, which seemed unreal weeks ago and which reinforces the failure to act upon the 2016 Cygnus Report.

There have been frequent complaints about lack of up to date statistics on care home and community deaths but I think another statistic we need is the number of deaths attributed to people afraid to attend hospital with other life threatening complaints, cancelled surgery, halted treatment and mental health crises. It’s not just their own fear of COVID stopping them going to hospital but government messages of ‘don’t overwhelm the NHS. Another public health communications fail.

(Pause for a triumphant shriek as my tweet about this was read out on Any Answers!). But we have to think about the amount of stress and anxiety for each and every individual waiting for treatment and surgery or worried about their mental health. They could be feeling very disempowered at this time.

It must be challenging for the government when one of ‘their own’, former Chancellor Philip Hammond in this case, joins in the clamour for a lockdown exit plan for the sake of the economy. He warned that the country could not afford to wait until a vaccine had become available before resuming more normal economic activity. 

There are two interesting programmes today on Radio 4: one about emerging from lockdown and what we will emerge to (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hmzl) and a profile of the Health Secretary Matt Hancock (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hmxq). These Profile programmes are only 15 minutes but pack in a surprising amount of useful information about key public figures. Very revealing it was, too, eg around age 10 he said he wanted to be PM, remarkably similar to his boss, who wanted to be ‘king of the world’. Such ambition didn’t seem to be justified by his former headmaster’s comments, though, who said that he wasn’t head boy material.

The lockdown programme looked at strategies in different countries. The Korean Dr Kim says COVID19 won’t just disappear – there will be further outbreaks. Meanwhile, a British pandemic expert was clear that when this is over we will not ‘go back to normal’ eg physical distancing will remain. She stressed the need for policymakers to ‘be transparent, keep the message to the public clear and keep it simple’ – the opposite of what has actually been done. 

You may have heard how important exercise is for mental health and a key advocate for this message is ‘Body Coach’ Joe Wicks, who volunteered at lockdown to be ‘the nation’s PE teacher’. During the week he does a live workout (on his YouTube channel) and is so engaging and positive it would be hard to think of anyone who wouldn’t be motivated by it. People tune in from all over the world, as far afield as Nigeria, Dubai and Moscow. Having done these for several weeks, I’ve decided at weekends I’ll catch up with the earlier ones I missed. This is his first, for 23 March, where he explains what his aims are, including getting people to feel much better and says it always makes him feel happier. He also offers others eg a ten minutes one for seniors.

Friday 24 April

A big news day – 19,506 deaths so far, moving up to the 20k thought shocking several weeks ago, but also the testing website closing within hours and the revelations about the alleged independence of the government’s scientific advice source.

Amid continuing talk about ‘ramping up capacity’ for COVID19 testing, it was reported that the much trumpeted new website for key workers to book tests had temporarily closed – hours after being opened by the government. You could not make this up!

The Today programme (about 08.50 am) featured playwright David Hare’s searing verdict on the government’s COVID19 performance, criticising the lack of transparency we are owed in return for such massive disruption to our lives in the form of lockdown. Hare had and recovered from the virus and makes clear where he thinks the inadequacies lie.

https://bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0

Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace has experienced mental ill-health for some years and has now produced this podcast – what is the covid19 crisis doing to our mental health? The ‘biggest health crisis in a generation and the enforced isolation of lockdowns is taking not just a physical toll on people but also affecting mental health’.  Of course we feel for those who can’t see their families but the position of those living on their own, without partners or families, gets mentioned only halfway through, eg the effect of going so long without physical touch and not knowing when this will end. When asked what helps, most of the advice is obvious but repeating it is helpful as things could easily be missed or overlooked: the public health expert said how important ‘keeping the basics gong’ (eg for some even getting dressed), accessing online sources of help, keeping in touch with friends and family, staying connected, ‘physical distancing but not social distancing’, being part of a community, helping others and exercise, which releases ‘feel good’ endorphins. John ‘eases off on news consumption’ towards the end of the day and recognises the powerlessness we’re experiencing with COVID19, that of just not knowing when this will end and what society will look like afterwards.

https://bit.ly/3cIuAIe

This evening the Guardian broke the shocking news that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s Chief Political Adviser, is on SAGE, the committee of scientists advising the government on its COVID19 strategy, and whose membership and minutes have been kept secret. Of course this will lead to further doubts about the quality and independence of that advice. Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: ‘So much for “independent” scientific advice … No wonder the Government wanted to keep the membership of SAGE secret Not only that, but the group clearly needs much stronger voice for Public Health experts on the committee too’.

Again, today’s events are likely to add further to public anxiety.

Thursday 23 April

A big day today – it’s World Book Day, St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday and Ramadan starts. I wonder how much these days mean to people. Obviously, none of these celebrations can take place in the usual way. For World Book Day, the custom of giving out free books will happen later and readers are recommended to read for an hour today before the 8 pm clapping. The good news is that people are reading more during lockdown, great for language and vocabulary development and also affording some escape. I’m always interested to hear what people are reading.

St George’s Day won’t see Morris dancers or big pub gatherings and flag waving. The Hits Locker on Twitter recommended listening to Dylan’s Desolation Row on Shakespeare’s birthday – have to confess I hadn’t heard of it (1965) but enjoyed it.

As for Ramadan, there are concerns about older Muslims still trying to get out to the mosque and about their fasting all day when this could endanger their health at a time treatment is harder to get.

More sobering news is that the virus death count is now 18,738, although it’s said the ‘curve is flattening’. Now it’s clearer, despite ongoing talk of ‘going back to normal’, that the virus and measures to counteract it will continue for quite some time yet. And we won’t be returning to how things were: instead society will evolve to take account of losses, necessary changes.  These changes will be far-reaching, eg societal, financial, global, environmental and so on. Physical distancing will have to continue so this threatens to severely undermine if not kill off the no-frills airlines, restaurants, bars, cinemas, sports and arts venues which we used so heavily before.

What are you doing/achieving/learning during lockdown? A question which seems to be gaining attention and this tweet attracted opprobrium earlier:

‘If you don’t come out of this quarantine with 1) a new skill, 2) your side hustle started 3) more knowledge — you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.’

It evidences the superiority and judgementalism in some quarters but raises interesting questions because lockdown does afford an opportunity to do things differently and many do have additional time (not all, obviously). But apart from an antipathy to the ‘side hustle’ phrase, which smacks of criminality to me, some are up to their ears with work, trying to keep households together, childcare and perhaps care for someone with dementia or learning difficulty. So some respondents said if they came through lockdown in one piece they’d done well enough and how their lives already demonstrated a great deal of discipline. Some have quite inspiring stories to tell, exercising for the first time, re-learning a language, getting into handicrafts and so on but there are different routes to personal growth.  

Wednesday 22 April

Besides the daily death toll, another depressing piece of news is Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s view that the UK will have to live with some social distancing measures for the rest of the year.

Today’s Guardian editorial paints a reactive rather than proactive picture of the government’s COVID19 strategy, presenting an analysis of what’s wrong and what’s needed. This is in the context of the much-hyped vaccine announcement yesterday, itself looking like a government attempt to claw back some dignity from the flak being flung at it.

‘While no expense should be spared to find a vaccine, the UK government must also display the wherewithal to design an administrative system to support and enable the public to live with this threat. That means getting the basics right. So far the signs have not been good. In Britain, everywhere you look you see a state overstretched and driven by politicians’ panic rather than careful planning.’

The article shows that other countries did not make unrealistic claims about tackling the virus but the UK did, eg saying said we’d have 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. ‘There do not seem to be coordinated, sustained efforts by the government….’ The operative word here is coordinated, with ministers like Simon Clarke saying x or y isn’t in their portfolio. Level is another operative word, because they have ‘levelled’ about the likely cost to the taxpayer post-pandemic but not about other important areas: ‘Ministers need to level with the public over the PPE shortfalls and blockages.’

The article suggests that two things need dispensing with PDQ – ‘They must shed ideas of British exceptionalism that saw them waste chances to purchase kit and protective equipment on the global market, as well as delusions that “herd immunity” was a way out of the pandemic. Again, increasing doubts about the government’s approach will increase anxiety in the population. At least, though, the government finally has some effective opposition and it sounds as if Keir Starmer gave Dominic Raab a good run for his money at PMQs today, the first of this new virtual parliament.

Although not surprising, it’s depressing to hear of the rise of scams, taking advantage of people’s insecurity and anxiety during the crisis. They range from the more predictable finance scams to the more insidious ones, eg the sale of expensive ‘vitamin infusions’, allegedly helping to protect people from the virus. Those purveying such things aren’t prevented from doing so despite NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) pointing out the lack of evidence base and asking them to desist. Of course, those with health anxiety will be especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. Not for nothing is there a hashtag on Twitter: #nutribollox.

Meanwhile, there are some cheering lockdown stories, people doing and making new things and those unable to do their old jobs adapting to the situation eg the tailor turned food picker featured on Radio 4 You and Yours.

We’re used to hearing about NHS staff at risk but the difficulties facing the psychiatric sector have largely been overlooked. Mental health units are hugely at risk because only half the psychiatrists surveyed said they’d been able to get tested (despite assurances that any NHS staff could get tested), and units can’t get PPE. A very real concern is that people living with mental illness might experience worsening symptoms and others might develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, while loss of employment and financial worries may lead to a sense of hopelessness.

Sir Simon Wessely (Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London) has usefully drawn attention to this interesting blog, also written up in The Telegraph, about how we resume our lives after lockdown. Rather than everyone going mad celebrating when lockdown ends, it looks at why people may be more reluctant to resume their previous lives, preferring safety to freedom.

Author Professor Bill Durodie (University of Bath) suggests that ‘as a slogan, “Stay Home, Save Lives” encourages what, at the time of the Second World War would have been recognised to be a paralysing “deep shelter mentality”. It fails to engage people actively in the collective effort to restore normality.” He argues that this ‘prolonged period of social isolation, fear and dependence….could lead to a culture of suspicion, avoidance and intolerance towards others, an unwillingness to embrace life’s uncertainties..’, – sounds more like existing than fully living. [For some reason the blog URL will not post but it’s University of Bath IPR blog – Getting on with life is the real battle now]

At 8 pm on Radio 4 (or catch up on BBC Sounds) Mary Ann Sieghart presents the last episode of Fallout, looking at the kind of society likely to emerge post-pandemic, focusing tonight on the environment. Key questions discussed include ‘How will COVID-19 affect how we think about risk? If we can change our behaviour to fight this emergency, could we also do it to avert a climate emergency? Or will we be even less willing to do so, as we’ll be more concerned about putting food on the table? Will governments also be less interested in tackling climate change when climbing out of a recession is a higher priority? Will we see more global co-operation to tackle global problems or the opposite: a more nationalist and divided world?’

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hfs7

Tuesday 21 April

This morning housing minister Simon Clarke was the latest junior minister to be found wanting by interviewers, including Piers Morgan – ‘savaged’ in the words of one source. On the PPE saga and the latest news that the Turkish supply still had not been released, Clarke made on the Today Programme what must be the understatement of the week: ‘’This is not a situation where we’re beyond criticism’.

The emergence of another scientist giving advice contrary to that of SAGE will be cause for further disquiet about the basis on which the government is basing its policy. Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine at Oxford University, said that the impact of the lockdown was “going to outweigh the damaging effect of coronavirus”.

The crisis has sparked necessary focus on a still taboo topic in some quarters: death and dying and how we anticipate and plan for them. Many are not yet doing it. You may remember We Need to Talk about Death, an excellent Radio 4 series a while back presented by the inimitable Dame Joan Bakewell. But it’s not only death and dying we’re up against in this situation: it’s death taking place where (despite the change in government policy) it’s not easy to see the deceased at the end and there’s no public ritualistic recognition (eg funeral and wake) of the customary kind. This is going to lead to numerous experiences of complicated grief, adding to the general mental health burden.

Today’s BBC Woman’s Hour led on this issue, featuring the impressive a palliative care expert Dr Rachel Clarke, who smashed it on Question Time last week. This discussion is so worthwhile and overdue as it’s common to encounter people who refuse any consideration of death even when in the older age group. It can be mistakenly seen as anti-life when philosophers have said we can’t live fully without having first reflecting on own endings.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000hfxy

One of the side-effects of lockdown has been people being unable to get to hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons and the likely collapse of those businesses. Weekend Woman’s Hour got some flak for covering the challenge of how we manage without these services, featuring a beauty editor who spent some time telling listeners, for example, how to wax and how to remove their gel nail polish (apparently has to be acetone, not with regular remover). I wonder what people think about this. On the one hand it could feel like first world problems and some emailed in to say how trivial it was and how there would be many who’d never got nails or waxing done. On the other hand we know how important the state of our appearance can be to our sense of wellbeing, and while it can perhaps be taken too far, a kind of dependency and over-emphasis on appearance, the fact is that it does make a difference to our sense of wellbeing.  

Just before today’s Downing Street briefing yet more sobering death statistics were announced: another 828 today, making a total of 17,300 COVID19 deaths.

On a lighter note, you might be interested to know that today is both World Curlew Day (shame no opportunities to get to nature reserves at the moment) and National Tea Day. So you can only see these beautiful birds online but you can make a cuppa!

Finally, you might enjoy this example of slow radio (examples of slow radio are regularly featured on Radio 4 Broadcasting House on Sunday mornings) was this piece last night at 11 pm on Radio 4 – an aid to mindfulness.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hdkw

Monday 20 April

As we enter the 5th week of lockdown, the government issued two rebuttals to the searing Sunday Times article, one saying the article ‘contained a series of falsehoods and errors’, the second concerning a Financial Times story on efforts to source privately designed ventilators. On another rebuttal, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Sophy Ridge Show that Gove had given “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed exposé in British political history” about the PM skipping the February COBRA meetings.  

Conservative MPs are barred from talking to the media about the pandemic without No 10 clearance, but some are known to be worried about the apparent lack of preparation, the continued significant daily rises in deaths, and the lack of a publicly discussed lockdown exit strategy.

The Times reported on the decision to keep secret until the crisis is over the advice and advisers to government. Neither the minutes nor the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), the government’s most senior team of expert advisers, are being made public. As SAGE is ‘the most senior team of expert advisers’, this lack of transparency will cause even more public disquiet because it’s been clear for a while that the use of ‘evidence’ and ‘science’ is variable and inconsistent. Scientist Dame Anne Glover said: ‘Openness supports trust and trust is really needed at the moment. It also opens up the possibility of very valuable challenge and input from ‘not the usual suspects’ which could be very helpful.” (my italics). This begs the question does the government want ‘valuable challenge’?

Added together, these various sources of opacity could result in even more anxiety for the public. But at least it’s good that more and more media sources are discussing the mental health implications of this crisis.

Meanwhile, the PPE and gowns saga rumbles on: the supply flight from Turkey expected before the weekend has still not reached the UK and even then the equipment would first need to be tested and distributed. Meanwhile, politicians repeat that this is global issue and clinicians continue to put their lives at risk. The suggestion of a minute’s silence to pay tribute to health care workers who have died seemed another diversionary tactic, not unlike the care badge, a cynical kind of virtue signalling that doesn’t address the problem.

The quality of ministers leading the 5 pm Downing Street briefings seems increasingly variable. Earlier a wag tweeted ‘Updated list for the next rota for the Downing Street Briefing: Priti Patel; Gavin Williamson; Stanley Johnson; Tim Martin; Guy Martin; Guy Fawkes; Ben Fogel; Foghorn Leghorn; Leggy Mountbatten; Jim Davidson; Oliver Dowden; Oliver’s Army and Chris Grayling (but only if absolutely necessary)’.

Finally, I know we’re being inundated with zillions of suggestions for stuff to read/watch/listen to, but if you’re looking for something really compelling to listen to, you might enjoy Tunnel 29, the story about the building of the escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall. This kind of gripping listening has the ability to take us out of ourselves, something very much needed at the moment.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0009kyn

Sunday 19 April

The government’s COVID19 performance and the PM’s in particular were blasted this morning from a source unexpected (to me, because of the normally pro-Tory Murdoch ), the Sunday Times, which detailed the trajectory of missed opportunities and delayed actions. In Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain walked into disaster, the authors show how the PM missing 5 COBRA meetings, the failure to order PPE and the ignoring of scientists’ warnings (or perhaps listening to too many inconsistent ‘experts’) formed the foundations of the domino effect outcome over the months which followed.

‘But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.’

Nevertheless, the PM still has a 66% approval rating for his handling of the crisis. A business leader tweeted: ‘Sadly there will be those that still think “they’re doing their best in tough circumstances”. We live in a country full of sycophants.’

If you want to hear some truly rigorous discussion about these issues, tune into Stephen Nolan on BBC Five Live at 11 pm on Saturdays, when Stephen is joined by former Tory minister Edwina Currie and broadcaster Mohammed Shafique.

Meanwhile, a new phrase has entered the English language – ‘lockdown shaming’. Police have been inundated with reports of alleged lockdown breaches, thought mostly to be mistakes or attempts to settle ‘vendettas’. West Midlands police, the UK’s second largest force, revealed it had been receiving up to 2,000 Covid-19-related calls a day – up to half of its daily total. The Guardian reports how some areas have ‘enthusiastically embraced “corona shaming’, eg Norfolk over the Easter weekend. This phenomenon suggests the surreal situation we’re living through is leading to the emergence of our more primitive sides beneath the veneer of civilisation.

At today’s press briefing, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced another 596 coronavirus deaths in hospitals, taking the total to over 16,000 and the number of cases to over 120k. At least 86 health and social care workers have died of COVID19, many of whom simply did not have adequate PPE, making it especially shocking that the gowns promised by the weekend will not arrive till tomorrow at the earliest. And yet Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, says “the U.K….has been an international exemplar in preparedness.” It seems very unfortunate, then, that the gowns promised by the weekend will not arrive tomorrow at the earliest.

All this news contributes further to the feeling that we are not being psychologically ‘held’ by a team of authentic, competent or consistent politicians and policymakers, with the potential for exacerbating anxiety and uncertainty.

On a cheerful note, ICYMI, you might like to catch up with the inspiring and chirpy fitness guru Joe Wicks, interviewed at 11 am on BBC Radio Five Live, where he talks so engagingly about the importance of exercise and diet at this time. This is especially helpful because so many were deterred from exercise years ago, having felt humiliated by early experiences of bossy or bullying games teachers at school. A key part was when he clarified the mental health benefits of exercise. As the presenter said, ‘his positivity is contagious’. There are great workouts on his YouTube channel (The Body Coach) at 9 am each weekday morning and if that feels too tough, there are others on offer eg several 10 minute ones for seniors. And no, I’m not getting paid to promote it, lol !

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hgz3