There was always going to be a limit to the extent to which those of us who have contributed to Covid2020diary could continue, somewhat masochistically, to pretend we are still languishing in 2020, which was not the most enjoyable year on record. Some of us maintained the illusion longer than others; in my case because I have found the blog a useful safety valve for the many frustrations attendant on living through a pandemic which has proved far more damaging than it would otherwise have been had we not simultaneously been suffering from a lethally incompetent government.
A summary of the state of the nation doesn’t present a pretty picture, as the entirely predictable damage wrought by Brexit becomes ever more starkly apparent. It is becoming increasingly difficult for government representatives to pretend that all the damage can be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, but that obviously won’t ever stop them from trying. And ongoing it certainly is. Daily infections in UK have declined to a still very alarming38,000 a day thanks largely, one suspects, to the schools having closed for half-term, with 157 Covid deaths reported yesterday. Late last month the number was up to 50,000 a day, more than the total number in the whole of the rest of Europe put together, with our Honourable Minister of Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, glibly predicting that rates “could yet go as high as 100 000 a day”[i], but doing nothing whatever to try to stop that from happening. Ever since Johnson witlessly declared “Independence Day” in July, the government has been loath to lose face by reintroducing any restrictions.
In the meantime, the NHS is on its knees and social care is, if anything, in an even worse situation. Almost 150,000 carers left the sector in 2019-2020, while estimates of the current shortage of staff put it variously at 17-20% and 105,000. The situation is about to be seriously exacerbated by the departure of another 30,000 thousand or so care workers who have fallen foul of Javid’s insouciant edict that all social care workers had to have received two Covid vaccinations by the end of last week or they would lose their jobs. Staff in the NHS who care for equally vulnerable people have somewhat puzzlingly been given until Spring to be double-vaccinated. The entirely predictable result of their loss of staff is that some care homes are having to close for want of adequate staff; even more people who would otherwise be transferred to care homes are clogging the increasingly limited number of available beds in hospitals; A&E departments are under unsustainable pressure because they can’t get patients moved into wards; and ambulances still queue for hours outside A&Es waiting to discharge their patients.
Given this dire situation, it is hardly surprising that 5.7 million people are now waiting for elective surgery in UK and that over 300,000 have been waiting for over a year – in my case 18 months now. Two very brief recent horror stories might help to give an indication of the seriousness of the situation. One was the story of a mother who had to wait for 14 hours through the night in an A&E with her very sick two-year old before the child was examined. The other was of a spectator who dialled 999 when her husband had a sudden cardiac arrest while he was playing cricket and had to wait 11 minutes for her 999 call even to be answered, never mind for an ambulance or para-medic to arrive. It was pure luck that the cricket club happened to be equipped with a defibrillator which enabled him to survive. The NHS’s target waiting time for an ambulance to get to a heart-attack victim is now an unambitious 18 minutes. Currently the average time nationally is 54 minutes.[ii] The chances of being revived even 10 minutes after a sudden cardiac arrest are said to be very low indeed.
The acute shortage of staff in the NHS is mirrored in other sectors, in all instances partly, if not mainly, as a result of the government’s xenophobic attitude to low-paid workers, and low-paid workers from the EU in particular. The Independent reported last week that there were 2.7 million advertised job vacancies across the UK, with another 221,000 being added last week alone.[iii] Roughly 100,000 of those are still HGV drivers, in spite of wage inflation that has seen them commanding £40-50k a year. The consequences are manifold: containers stacking up in ports; taxi drivers, bin-lorry drivers, bus drivers, retraining as HGV drivers, resulting in sometimes dire country-wide shortages of qualified people to fill the jobs they are leaving – 5,000 taxis have disappeared from the streets in London alone; bare supermarket shelves; dire warnings that if you want to give your children toys for Christmas you had better buy them soon, and so on. There are staffing shortages across the board – somewhat unexpected pinch points right now being shortages of driving instructors, prison officers and forklift truck drivers – all of which shortages inevitably result in spiralling wages and, inevitably, general inflation.
More broadly, the government’s national standing is very belatedly starting to mirror its lamentable international standing, which last was starkly exemplified by the entirely justifiable contempt with which Johnson, who was supposed to be hosting COP26, was bypassed entirely by the USA and China as they entered into an agreement to work together to address the challenges of climate change. That was one of the few positives to come out of the conference. When, to the acute disappointment of the vast majority of delegates, China and India subsequently forced a watering down of the wording of the final agreement, changing the “phasing out” of the use of coal to “phasing down” the use of coal, Johnson went on record [iv] as saying there wasn’t much difference between the two. He deigned to put in a couple of fleeting visits to the conference to hector the assembled company on the subject of climate change, having on the first occasion flown from London to Glasgow, doubtless to tell people that aviation exacerbates global warming. On the second occasion he had the embarrassment of having to assert to the assembled international journalists that the UK is ‘not a corrupt country’, which most of them would have known was untrue because it was Johnson who was saying it.
The need to claim to the world that the UK is not a corrupt country was a response to the media outcry Johnson provoked by whipping the Tory MPs to vote to replace the Standards Committee with a Tory dominated alternative as a way to get rid of Kathryn Stone, the Standards Commissioner who had found one of his mates, ex-minister Owen Paterson, guilty of an ‘egregious breach’ of the lobbying rules. Johnson’s main objective in doing this is widely assumed to have been his anxiousness about what she would find when she turned her attention to his own corrupt and lascivious behaviour. Regrettably it would be outside the terms of reference of the Standards Commissioner to comment on Johnson’s ongoing attempts to shore up his leaking support from sections of the parliamentary Conservative Party, as well as s Tory voters, by – watch for the irony – keeping Brexit from actually being “done”. He is threatening to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol which he himself signed barely a year ago because it isn’t working, as anyone with any sense knew it wouldn’t, for which he is inevitably trying to blame the EU. It is abundantly clear that either Johnson did not read or understand the protocol, both of which are entirely possible, or that, as his former advisor the unlamented Dominic Cummings asserts, he always intended to tear the agreement up once it had won him 10 Downing Street and his newly £600-a-roll wall-papered flat above No 11.
So, overall, the state of the nation doesn’t look particularly attractive. There are, however, some positives to be discerned, glimmers of light on the horizon, even in the political sphere. The attempt to find a way to exonerate Owen Paterson, abandoned with yet another screeching U-turn within 24 hours, unleashed an encouraging furore both in the Conservative Party and the media. Tory MPs were outraged at having been whipped to do what most of them realised was either tactically stupid or corrupt; the media, even the Tory-loving right-wing press, had a week of field days unearthing ever more Tory sleaze; Labour finally took a marginal lead in the opinion polls; and Johnson’s popularity rating among Tory voters plunged to an all time low. It seems quite clear that senior members of the Conservative Party are now out on manoeuvres to make sure they get rid of Johnson before the next election. The Conservative Party has a long history of getting rid of Prime Ministers as soon as they become a liability rather than an asset. It couldn’t happen to a more contemptible man.
More broadly, the availability of vaccinations and booster jabs enables us to see our York and Sheffield families without much Covid anxiety, although we are still avoiding buses and trains where possible. We have booked to fly to Cape Town for a month from the middle of February, in the possibly naïve hope that vaccination coverage will be as comprehensive as it could ever be, and that Johnson and his cronies will not have handled the ongoing pandemic so badly that another lockdown has to be enforced. So the horizon is looking brighter. And the pandemic has had some unexpected spin-offs. It has revolutionised the way the country works by demonstrating that a great many people don’t need to undertake long and generally fiendishly expensive commutes so that they can be crammed into stuffy offices to do work that they can do equally well, if not better, on-line from home. The internet makes it possible to work from home almost anywhere. Two negative consequences do, however, stand out in particular: one is that sandwich shops and other outlets in the city centres that catered for the commuters are going to the wall; its corollary is that property prices in country villages are rocketing, inevitably at the expense of people trying to get a foot on the property ladder. But in the long term the transformation will enhance the quality of many people’s lives.
Perhaps the most positive outcome has been the initiation or consolidation of widely diverse communities and friendships, large and small. We know the neighbours in our street far better than we did before the lockdown and know where to turn if we are in need of help. Paradoxically, our virtual meetings and interactions have enabled our u3a committee to get to know each far other better than we did when we sat formally around a table once a month. We have started to meet socially as a group. And communities no longer need to be local ones: my wife Susan, for example, spends a couple of hours a week with a knitting group based in Cape Town which has included knitters from as widely dispersed as other European countries and Australia, regardless of time differences, and she does yoga two evenings a week in a group that sometimes includes people on the continent, guided by a yoga teacher in a village twenty or so miles out of the city.
We have created a kind of community of common purpose ourselves through Covid2020diary. We may never communicate directly with one another, and in many instances have never even met one another, but what people write in their blogs, and how they go about, it can often be very revealing. It would be good to be able to meet in person with fellow bloggers with whom we have shared our experience of the consequences of Covid, and whom we have, at least to some extent, got to know virtually. Thankfully, we have all, so far at least, survived through the worst global pandemic in over a century.
I have found the very many hours spent writing for the blog over the 20 months since my first entry an absorbing and time-erasing occupation which has enabled me to keep writing when life seems too fragmented for it to be possible to write another novel. For some reason I haven’t found the inspiration to write a single poem over those 20 months either. The blog format allows the freedom to let off steam and be as prolix in as the mood takes one (all too vividly illustrated by this final, wordy entry). I stifle any qualms of guilt about that with the thought that nobody is compelled to read it. Covid2020diary has been an excellent antidote to anomie as horizons have inexorably shrunk while I wait, now with 5.7 million others, for elective surgery on my back. 300,000 of us have been waiting for well over a year now, with any blame for this state of affairs in my case, although regrettably not everyone’s, being laid very squarely at Johnson’s door, rather than the door of a grotesquely overburdened NHS that has understandably been unable to offer elective surgery when the wards, and the doctors’ time, are fully occupied with ill and dying Covid victims. Through the many visits to our GPs and the hospital over the past 20 months – Vascular Surgery, Cardiology, Phlebotomy, Pain Clinic, you name it – I have found the staff unfailingly courteous, kind and highly competent.
In the darkest days of the pandemic it was been good find the shared experience of the blog pushing back against those shrinking horizons. So thank you to all my fellow-bloggers for their insights into the way their worlds, and they themselves, have been trying to contend with Covid. We all have Brenda and Anne to thank for the idea and the invitation, and Anne to thank for her patience in the administering of the blog, for her own entries, and for guiding me through WordPress’s more arcane by-ways. Thank you one and all.
Over and out.