from Brenda in Hove, UK: A Valediction

10 November 2021

When Anne and I started this blog site, we had it in mind to record the stories of the Covid pandemic as experienced by friends and family across eight countries. When we wrote to people inviting them to participate, they were extraordinarily generous in their responses, and I do want to thank them for that. They are a reasonably diverse group of people in terms of work and interests and brought that diversity to bear in their comments and opinions. They are also of an age, mostly. “Retired” (more or less) but busy with all sorts of projects and volunteer activities, some of which had to be abandoned. Mind you, since the onset of Covid, three have published books, one obtained a PhD, some managed to work on assignments online, one took on a big new job, others took on new projects – but nevertheless all our lives were affected by the exigencies of the pandemic and the realities of being in an age group that was high risk. Some have ongoing health issues, one experienced the loss of a spouse, all were separated in some way from family. The severity of lockdowns varied from country to country and even within a country – and that too imposed some harsh realities. The hard lockdowns were difficult for most of us.

And yet, when I read the blogs posted, there is a determined cheerfulness about them that belies some of the hardships the writers were experiencing. These are stoic, resilient, and resourceful people. They have all been survivors. Stiff upper lip and all that.

And yet, there is no gainsaying that the last 20 months have been difficult and left their mark. I certainly do not feel the same person I was 20 months ago. I do not think I achieved as much as I would have liked. And I do not think my relationships are the same as they were 20 months ago – more especially with my grandchildren. When you cannot visit and see young people, the bonds that need reinforcing and fostering weaken – and I doubt we will be able to make that time up. My two in Brighton were children 20 months ago, they are now teenagers with broken voices and different interests. They have left childhood behind – and they have had a tough time of it in the process. The other grandchildren in different countries and cities would have been visited and ‘inspected’ and good memories created. However excellent Whatsapp is, it is not the same. And it makes me sad.

My husband and I are lucky to live in a country where we have not only been vaccinated but have had a booster shot. Many of the diary participants are not so lucky. And for those who live in India or parts of Africa, the reality is much different. These are my friends and family – and one cannot help but worry.

So, who knew this would be our reality at this time of our lives? I wish I were the best example of someone who coped with Covid and lockdown and all it has entailed but clearly, I am not. I count myself fortunate to have friends all over the world who showed us what is possible in adverse circumstances. Thank you again. I salute you all.

From Brenda in Hove: Clinging to the Wreckage

18 April 2021

Today I had my second jab – well within the 12 weeks prescribed for it.

In a previous blog I described the experience of the first jab. Mostly voiced my admiration for all the volunteers who were running this mammoth operation – and their cheerfulness and efficiency. It was an uplifting experience that time.

This time there was a noticeably different atmosphere. While all the volunteers were bright and helpful there was an air of grim determination about the whole thing. No chattiness, no introductions (like “I am Dr Jones and I will be giving you your vaccination”), hardly any sound at all in the whole huge room. All you had to do was give your name and date of birth, show your last vaccination card, present your arm for the needle and hurry out of the way to allow the next in line. And you were left in no doubt as to the fact that you had to hurry. It was like a drill, socially distanced!

As for the people waiting in long lines, they were different as well. Last time we were quite a cheery bunch, happy that we were getting the vaccination and buoyed up by the patent efficiency of the exercise and the friendly volunteers. This time we were a stolid lot. I seemed to be the only one who had made it to a hairdresser since they opened 6 days ago! We were a motley crew. We had all given up on anything that could be described as ‘smart’ clothing, even vaguely co-ordinated clothing. The cold weather has gone on for so long that no change in clothing from winter has even been thought about. Lots of layers – which was embarrassing when you had to get your arm out for someone who was standing, needle at the ready.

We were an elderly lot (first to get the jabs and first to get the top-up) but there did seem to be many more people who were in a bad way, health-wise. There were several wheelchair cases, slumped rather than sitting – with their carers, also unsmilingly determined. Most people seemed to be on their own, some looking very frail, and they stood in line without comment or complaint – and hurried as best they could. Oh dear.  

Mind you, I have to add that my husband told one of the volunteers when he checked in that his wife was very thirsty (we had hoped to stop for a bottle of water and a newspaper to pass the time, but the traffic was heavier than we expected and we didn’t stop after all). She almost ran to get me a cup of water as soon as she possibly could! I didn’t know he had asked for it and was very surprised to be picked out in the line for this service!  Also embarrassing in the midst of more important matters claiming their attention.

The whole scene reminded me of John Mortimer’s autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage. His was an interesting life, well-lived – and he found this title apt. Imagine what most of us have been thinking after this awful 13 months of lockdown and death tolls. Clinging to the wreckage indeed.

From Brenda in Hove: Give a Little, Get a Lot

3 February

Four days ago I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. I didn’t hesitate one second when I got the text from our medical practice and booked the first available (day-time) appointment in two days’ time. The Brighton Race Course is not a place one would associate with medical activity (except maybe heart attacks) but there it is, fitted out with desks and cubicles and an ‘observation area’ where you are required to sit for 15 minutes after the jab.

The parking arrangements are not immediately obvious nor is the one-way system of getting people into the ‘production lines’ and the howling wind and rain didn’t help. We didn’t go up the right road the first time but I was anxious to not be late so my husband dropped me and I squeezed myself around a gate and through an unavoidable puddle and ran the last 100 metres. There were people directing you at every junction – even outside.

When I clocked in I asked the woman at the desk if she was a volunteer. “Oh, we all are, dear! Every single person here.” So mostly because I wanted to thank people who were giving their time like this but also because I was interested – and sure enough, every one told me they were volunteering. Doctors, nurses, secretaries, every kind of person taking on even the most menial tasks. Not much fun standing outside in that foul weather and directing people, not much fun scrubbing down the seats and tables, not much fun filling in the same forms over and over again, not much fun plunging needle after needle into arm after arm – yet every single one said things like “what else could I be doing that is more important?” or “the least I can do” or “much more cheerful here than stuck at home by myself” or “there is such a good spirit here that I enjoy it all very much” (nurse who works full-time at our practice and has a family but still gives two of her three days off to this exercise) or “best thing I could do with my days off” (doctor). As of today 10 million people have been vaccinated in the UK and counting. Extraordinary.

When my husband found a parking place he was worried as to how he would find me and  asked one of the parking attendants. She said not to worry because there was a one way system and he couldn’t miss me in the observation area. And so it came to be. When we were leaving James leaned out of the window to thank her for her help and she said “I am sorry to see you found your wife!” Hilarious laughter followed – even from me – but I couldn’t help wondering what he had told her. He is not to be drawn!

The last few days since the vaccine have not been easy. 24 hours after the jab I felt as if lead had been injected into my limbs. I could hardly move and felt dizzy and nauseous. As if that were not enough, I cannot sleep. The doctor tells me it will wear off in a week.

Then I will see if I can volunteer myself to do something useful in this national endeavour. Inside the building – not outside.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Another ‘Blursday’

Prof. Brenda Gourley

‘Blursday’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘doomscroll’ are in Times Magazine’s collection depicting the year ‘2020 in Language. I relate to these three particularly. In the UK we are now in the third strict lockdown in a year – but, given the risks for our age group, my husband and I have effectively been in strict lockdown since last March.

You will understand my recognition of ‘blursday’ as an excellent way of describing my life at the moment, a life where one day is so very like another that it is difficult to know which day of the week it is.   

You will pardon my exasperation at Covidiots who include the members of government here who thought letting people celebrate Christmas with their families a good idea. With family in America you can well imagine that ‘exasperation’ hardly covers my feelings towards an administration that largely ignored the Covid reality – and encouraged that same attitude in its millions of supporters. It is , however, no longer useful to merely describe them and the many millions of Americans who clearly think the same way as ‘idiots’. There are deep underlying issues here.

That brings me to ‘Doomscrolling’. Watching the news began to feel like ‘doomscrolling’ some time ago and we decided to limit the number of broadcasts we watch every day. There is just too much bad news out there. And then came the events at the Capitol in Washington last week. I was back to ‘doomscrolling’. I would think impeachment is the least of the consequences in store for Trump. We will see. One is not filled with confidence. And, given the number of his supporters and their deep and strongly held sense of grievance, Biden will have a difficult job restoring trust in the system. And it is not just the US system where trust has been eroded. The whole Brexit debate was fuelled by the many who no longer believed the establishment in power was working for them.

But exasperation, and doomscrolling and the blurred focus of the days do not cover the one overriding feeling I have at this time – and that is a sense of grief.

The grief is prompted by my concern for what young people make of all this, and what it all means for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is not just the pandemic – although that has certainly highlighted many of the fault-lines in our society and I suspect that life will never be the same for many of us. It is that – but so much more. We are seeing almost in real time major geographic and political shifts which are already reformulating many of the premises on which so many of us in the West have built our relatively comfortable lives.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on many lives and yet we don’t see urgency in the kind of responses that such catastrophe should elicit. Governments that have been unable to come to grips with a pandemic do not fill us with confidence that they are equal to this larger and more threatening challenge. No wonder the Greta Thunbergs of the world feel they have to act. They do.

The changes wrought by technology and all that it has enabled have made the world better in so many ways with amazing innovations being announced all the time (not the least of which is the new vaccine). But it has also exposed a deep digital divide and made many jobs redundant. New kinds of jobs are being invented and yet education systems have been slow to change accordingly – and it is young people who are feeling the burden of this, their schooling interrupted and even cut short, they are to be thrust into a cruel and ridiculous ‘gig’ economy (if they find a job at all) and equipped only with the education of yesteryear. They are the future architects of a new world and the support they are given wholly inadequate.

The balance of world power from West to East, long foretold, is happening at a much greater pace than predicted and helped along by weak leadership in the West and the rise of populist cultures fed on the thin gruel of conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, the importance of ‘celebrity’ and social media untethered by the laws of libel, incitement and hate speech. Some call this ‘the age of impunity’ where all sorts of behaviours including egregious human rights abuses are tolerated. Young, impressionable minds need to be strong to resist the siren calls.  It is hard.

It is true that from great upheavals there often comes great change. I do hope that the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd and others will take hold and fuel change. I am only cautiously optimistic. If those storming the Capitol last week had been black or Muslim I can’t help believing that the police response would have been a whole lot more violent. So we are not there yet. But I do believe there has been at least some change – but can young people rely on this?

The success of populist cultures has exposed the inadequacy of so-called ‘democratic’ systems of government and with the inequalities between rich and poor are more stark than ever before, no wonder there are so many angry people. Again too many people, young and older, do not have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. 

No young people are sheltered from these realities. Social media ensures that. No place for innocence now. My heart grieves.  

From Steph in London: Sartorial Elegance

Steph is a retired educationalist who has lived and worked in London since the 70’s

16 November.

Not sure whether to believe the hype around the proposed vaccine. Having watched Tigger Hancock talk about world beating and game changing ad nauseam I will believe it when I get the call from the doctor to go and get it…..

Then what? Do we have to wait until every adult we know has had  it or can we go out untouchable and safe for others? And – going out means wearing something acceptable……

My mother always had make-up on, friends vary from the smart casual to the ‘whatever’ schools of elegance….whilst in these bizarre times it’s interesting to see what we are all wearing….

Work uniforms out of the window, going out clothes firmly in the wardrobes, comfortable shoes aplenty. There has been an easiness about wearing jeans, sweaters and trainers day after day. Even meeting on Zoom has seen a relaxation in styles- and yet the world has continued to go round despite the lack of cashmere and hand-made shoes…

If the downside is that we don’t necessarily look at our best the good news is that the environment must be in better shape because detergent use must be far less.

I haven’t opened my wardrobe  for weeks and the only decision I have to make is which jumper to wear – all very casual and no best clothes in sight! It’s comfortable and soothing not to have to think what to wear. However, to my horror I caught myself thinking that a pair of track suit bottoms would be even easier…’s been too long!

15 years ago we were in Hong Kong and went for a weekend to the island of Sanya not knowing that the Miss World competition was taking place in the hotel. We arrived  to be surrounded by a hundred beautiful young women and their very fierce minders. We watched with fascination as they were put through their paces, doing various competitions, games and modelling uber chic clothes.

The interesting thing was that although we saw them all bedecked in formal attire, smart casual and many bikinis, they all looked more beautiful  when they had  clothes on than when they were scantily attired.

On that note I’m going to order a new outfit for Xmas – got to look my best for splendid isolation…

From John in Brighton: Good News – at last

13 November

Just the ticket! Like London buses there’s no good news for months then three items within a week (well two together for buses but you get the meaning)! Admittedly one is clearly the gold medal winner and arguably a champagne moment, prosecco for the second and a pint of bitter for the bronze medalist.

A vaccine is on the way and early evidence suggests a 90% efficacy. Sweet dreams immediately supplant the nine month nightmare. As well as the relief of restoring the Nation’s health and saving the burnout of the NHS the economy quickly reflects the optimism. Companies review the plans for laying off swathes of staff and share prices jump.with the exception of Zoom which has plummeted. The front pages are awash with the good news mostly presented in a staid and balanced way but I had to smile at the Sun’s twist:  BRITAIN had its pecker up last night after the firm behind Viagra revealed it has made a vaccine that stops 90 per cent of people from catching Covid. But clearly, as has been stressed, the potential magic bullet must be subjected to thorough safety scrutiny like any other drug or vaccine. The data hasn’t even been peer reviewed as yet and will need to go to the fine-tooth comb of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and other independent bodies like the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Notwithstanding attempts to concertina the process it will take time and as has been stressed safety is paramount and a degree of patience and caution is needed.  So from the deep twilight of our tunnel at 1 Lux we’re still in dark days – yesterday we became the first European nation to record 50,000 Covid deaths –  at 100 Lux but at least the 10,000 Lux of the bright dawn of defeating Covid is now a tangible reality. Despite its being seen as a game changer it was interesting that on “Question Time” last evening a few people expressed reservation on account of safety but they looked to me to be the under 50’s who needn’t worry ‘cos they’re well down the pecking order as The Sun might say. The sole septuagenarian expressed no such reservation and, to borrow a well-used colloquialism “me too” as long as no significant side effects are raised. 

And then the silver medal goes to the US election and the end of thug rule – it still amazes me that so many people can back a narcissistic bigot. How he must wish the Pfizer announcement had come a fortnight earlier. Call me cynical but I have to smile as I imagine, based on as little evidence as Donald has for election fraud,  the discussion at their New York headquarters and  opting to delay the good news until November 5th at the earliest. Thank you Pfizer on two accounts! The icing on the cake would be if we got the opportunity to do the same with our own  “reckless gambler with startling blond hair and a record of mendacity” (Andrew Rawnsley’s description in The Observer not mine) but I don’t see that imminently.

And in third place yesterday’s announcement of a bonus bank holiday albeit not until June 2022 as a token of the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. Adopting my Cassandra clone I calculate that is over seventy five weeks away and a week is a long time for a 94 year old in a pandemic  – even without the politics to plagiarise of sorts Harold Wilson.  But you look very sprightly Ma’am and I’m sure you’ll be fine so let the planning begin.

Never mind Friday 13th or Christmas being over a month away I awaken to an encore for the glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind. Dominic “eye test” Cummings is on his way. Apparently he jumped before being pushed but perhaps he’s better off out of it before the potentially disastrous denouement of a no deal Brexit and now without Plan B of cuddling up with Donald. Who knows? Perhaps with the loss of his close allies BJ will decide it’s all too much and writing a column for The Telegraph at £275 grand a year would give him time to sleep at night….and maybe even spawn another infant or two.

Sorry but gotta go now… book my place at No 2 in the vaccine queue. Looks like Jonathan Van Tam’s mother is a shoo-in for the first jab. But with several other vaccines at varied stages of development and a proportion of people having reservation then maybe the bun fight will be averted.

From John in Brighton: The Second Lockdown …of Sorts

10 November

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results is often attributed to Albert Einstein – perhaps in error with Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and a Chinese proverb also in the running but the message is more important than its provenance. So now we have it, deja vu.
But it’s not. We’ve entered our second lockdown but with a difference – I’d call it a half and half variant. Back in the spring Covid was a new entity but had already demonstrated its potency to cause serious illness and mortality especially, but not entirely, in the elderly and vulnerable. Across North and South, old and young, political red blue and yellow, England and the devolved nations we were as one that a lockdown was the only way. The only dispute was over why it took so long. It was a novelty welcomed by many, less traffic on the roads, time to enjoy nature as spring evolved into summer and the community pulled together like never before (or at least since Margaret Thatcher announced that there is no such thing as society). Yes there was a hit to employment and income but it’ll be over quickly, we can use some savings and Rishi, that conflation of Superman and Robin Hood, saves the day with his furlough scheme.

Much has been made of the ongoing policy making being a balance between health and economy. In fact neither has been the hard and fast line and as a consequence both are catastrophic – we have the highest rate of excess deaths in Europe and the worst hit to economic growth. To my mind the priority has to be health and minimising the much reported R number and for two reasons. Pragmatically whilst the virus pervades society there will be an insidious impact on business and the economy and the latter can only truly flourish when viral numbers are much lower than those reached even at the best of times in the summer. We can’t simply kick the can up the road as the silver bullet of the vaccine waits in the wings despite the very positive announcement yesterday. With further hoops to jump through who knows when and what guarantee of sustained effectiveness? No, it is by continuing strict precautionary measures that we will minimise the virus in the short to medium term. The first lockdown was very effective, perhaps catalysed by the summer months, but the pendulum swung too quickly towards the economy with Eat Out to Help Out which I thought was short sighted at the time, get back to the office and have a holiday (including selected overseas destinations) leading us to believe the virus was defeated and here were the first green shoots of a return to so-called normality. But Covid showed the qualities of a phoenix rising with a vengeance from the ashes and although it would be too simplistic to blame the relaxation as the sole cause it must have proved a very effective kindling agent. My second case for the health priority is that this virus is literally a killer – the economy was devastated after the war but recovered and hopefully the same will happen again but lives lost are irreversible. The sanctity of life is paramount.

I accept that these are very difficult decisions for the Government with no historical lodestar. But I’d throw a third factor into the mix. Boris Johnson thrives on bluster – his inclination despite his desire to mirror Winston is to send out positive vibes and to err towards offering policies to please the public rather than a hard line that may be what is needed. The initiatives alluded to above along with statements such as a promise of a near normal Christmas foment a Micawberish overoptimism further releasing the shackles in many peoples’ minds. Covid v Boris – there can only be one winner. Initially BJ was as reluctant as Trump to concede but it was inevitable that the second lockdown was only a matter of time ……And what about another Government mantra “We follow the science”. SAGE advised a lockdown in late September only to be kicked into touch ….if only ministers had kept to their word. The Cabinet nodding dogs understandably follow the party line but, I wonder, where do Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance stand? Having heard them speak in the last week or two along with sixteen confusing slides in twelve minutes it was very much a support for the Government decisions.  But are they being disingenuous and as Chief Medical and Scientific Officer respectively shouldn’t their role be to support the independent scientists unless they genuinely deemed them wrong (which I doubt)? They are surely there as advisers and not to simply add assumed credibility as Government mouthpieces.There’s a final piece of very potent evidence supporting the lockdown – Nigel Farage is launching an anti-lockdown party. So here’s a question I never thought I’d raise – where’s Mrs Thatcher when you need her? She’d have determined the best policy for the country and stuck to it (The lady’s not for turning) whereas Boris & Co have more U-bends than the Pimlico plumber. 

Despite the Government’s relaxation of restrictions I have continued a strict adherence to very limited social contact – the equation of risk has remained in my mind as weighted towards avoiding a potentially fatal virus which has never gone away. But eight months on it feels very different  and is getting harder. Even in winter a garden and a bicycle can provide a safety valve and how I feel for those with young children in high rise blocks. At least the schools and universities are staying active but that begs a question of undermining the effectiveness of the lockdown and hence my labeling it half and half. Students were seen as arguably the most significant viral vectors and the Government’s argument that children are almost never seriously affected is banal – children and adults are always going to mingle and are to Covid the equivalent of the mosquito to malaria. Yes, I know malaria is transmitted by protozoa not viruses but the principle of carrying an infection is the same! Call me glass half empty but I’m not convinced a month of the current strategy is going to have a major beneficial impact.

Despite the reservations, yesterday’s announcement offers a desperately needed glint of light at the end of a still very dark tunnel. Let’s just pray that the flickering flame of hope gets fanned as effectively as Boris’ optimism.

From Steph in London: How many carrots to loosen a tooth?

 25 October

Having our usual Zoom chat- “What  news Jacob?”

I’ve got a wobbly tooth and I couldn’t wobble it out so I had a carrot. Do you know you need about 10 carrots to get a tooth out……there followed a detailed conversation about the strength of carrots versus the obstinacy of loose teeth when you are 7.

That’s what I miss- the incidental conversations that children initiate, that grandparents go along with, that remind us of the importance of a child’s perspective on the world.. Adults perspectives are far too jaundiced.

Jacob and his brother  had their 7th birthday in the summer. They usually have raucous fun filled birthday parties with loads of cake. That’s the good news.  The bad is that they live in Manchester and have been unable to have people in the house for months.. The party was cancelled 3 times and finally went ahead at an activity centre where only the children were allowed to go in. So picture 30 parents of 7 year  olds dropping off their offspring somewhere where they will have a great time and then come home exhausted…..a total win win….

The phenomena of unintended consequences looms large these days… but are they enough to change behaviours on a permanent basis? Thinking life on a daily basis is boring- the times we have walked out of the house without masks- but at least  it puts up the number of  steps walked!!

Socialising face to face has to be the gold standard, hugs gold star plus  and anything else is a pale second best….

Talking of which (a pale second bet)  – the rush to the bottom of competencies in the government. I have lost count of how my times Matt Hancock has had a foot in mouth moment ( has he had any successes?) The Track and Trace, the App, the spurious 6 people only in houses – if I had one iota of confidence that he has surrounded himself with people infinitely more competent than himself that he would listen to, I’d feel we were going to beat the virus. However, I remain dumbfounded that he is still in position.

Ditto Gavin Williamson. Ask any educationalist how they think he’s doing.. their answers are usually too blue to print… they are both playing with people’s lives- and Boris won’t move them whilst they detract from his lacklustre leadership…..

From Brenda in Hove: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a matter of resilience

21 October

The Economist tells us this week that resilience has become “the buzzword for governments in the face of the pandemic (and) covers not only supply chains but also the ability to forge a political consensus around a strategy.” (October 17th) How fortunate that one of our bloggers (Louis van der Merwe) is just about ready to publish a book on that very subject: Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists. 

The book addresses the issue of resilience in organisations – and especially resilience in those organisations that go to make up the government of a country, its towns and cities and other units employed in managing an increasingly complex world. It not only gives practical guidance on how to gauge the levels of resilience, but also ways of developing strategies to improve resilience.

The manual does indeed come at a fortuitous time. We would have done well to pay more attention to organisational resilience before the advent of the Covid19 pandemic. Emerging economies as well as developed economies are all experiencing serious economic decline as they struggle to adjust to the realities of life in a pandemic. Their lack of readiness to withstand the challenges posed are being exposed in most areas of public life: health, transport, supply chains, education, human capacity management, and governance systems, to name but some. It is almost like the sticking plaster that was keeping things together has been ripped off and the wounds below are exposed – fault lines if you like. Some would argue that this pandemic and how we steer our way through it is just a “dress rehearsal” for the much larger disrupter that lies ahead: climate change. However one frames the issues, there can be no doubt that making sure we have resilient towns and cities is a significant way to rebuild economies and organizations and prepare ourselves for a future that is significantly different to the past. We will be surely tested to the limits. Louis’ work and the research that went into the book (with a doctorate collected along the way) will be useful.    

Resilience is of course not just a matter for organisations but also for individuals. A couple of years ago, The World Health Organization described stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century” and building resilience (physical and mental strength) has been on the agenda of healthcare professionals for some time. It has also been on the curriculum for training in leadership for several years. And that was before COVID (and its attendant recession) and the prospect of climate change.

I have long been interested in resilience as a topic to address in mentoring and other activities. There are all sorts of ways to build individual resilience and most of us are familiar with the mantras of exercise, meditation and other good practices in our daily lives. What is less discussed are the casts of minds that help people through difficult times. One of these is optimism. Optimism is certainly helpful in maintaining resilience. I am a naturally optimistic person, but I must say I have to concentrate on staying that way, at the moment. In the UK we have a government which has not distinguished itself in handling the Covid crisis. We learn that the NHS did go through a disaster management exercise a few years ago – the kind of exercise designed precisely to gauge its resilience in the face of something like a pandemic, and simply shelved the result. No-one has been held accountable for this unpardonable failure of leadership. Books, manuals, strategies all rely on implementation – and on accountability.

The very heart of democracy seems to be under attack – even in those countries which we have come to believe are models of democracy. I point to the UK and the US as just two. Both have leaders that seem to defy the very fundamental underpinning of democracy in action – and get away with it. I long for the American people to call out these things as they go to the polls and I hope they restore our faith. I am holding my breath.

In the meantime, I cling to the motto of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, a motto he described as having “the pessimism of the intellect while at the same time having the optimism of the will”. That is, our intellect tells us that there is much to concern us, but we know that humans are good at solving problems. Exercising our will to be optimistic means we have hope that the difficulties we encounter can probably we resolved to a greater or lesser extent.   

Neither the adaptation to the covid virus nor the greater challenges that need to be wrought in the face of climate change will happen by wishful thinking. Helen Macdonald in her powerful new book (Vesper Flights) warns against the danger of “apocalyptic thinking being antagonistic to action.” There are all sorts of ways in which we can act, she says: “we can exert pressure, we can speak up, we can march and cry and mourn others, and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility. For even if we don’t believe in miracles, they are there, and they are waiting for us to find them.”   

Congratulations to Louis for playing his part.   

From John in Brighton: Time to Kick Against the Pricks?

20 October

In case you hadn’t noticed I haven’t eulogised to date for the Government’s Covid strategies or more precisely Boris and Matt – at least I’m far from alone on that. But I’m going biblical and take you to Acts 9:5 where Saul is on the road to Damascus and suddenly a bright light appears from Heaven and Jesus acknowledges Saul’s persecuting him and that it is hard for him to kick against the pricks. I wonder if the Cambridge dictionary had Boris and Matt in mind when they defined the meaning as “to argue and fight against people in authority”.  Meanwhile Oxford gives the meaning as “to hurt oneself by persisting in useless resistance or protest”.

Up until now I’ve strongly supported a strategy of social isolation, masks, test and trace, possible lockdown of varying extent and degree etc etc. But we’re in a rapidly escalating second wave, test and trace is a shambles, no vaccine on the horizon, morale is tanking nearly as fast as the economy and civil war is festering with a North-South divide, local versus central government and even Tory versus Tory. Maybe it is time for a rethink, a road to Damascus moment. The seeds were first sown for me not by the scientists or government ministers but by John Caudwell, the wealthy founder of Phones 4 u, speaking convincingly on Question Time recently. Hearing that he was a Tory donor triggered an instant Pavlovian response to rubbish all that he said which essentially revolved around a rethink of our strategy to Covid. A key factor was still unproven but some early evidence that the virus was losing potency compared to the spring, we had better knowledge of the virus and significant improvements in treatment strategies. The antiviral Remdesivir is effective and dexamethasone (a steroid) lowers mortality for the very sick. Ignore the Tory links and maybe, just maybe, he has a point. Quotidian health issues, physical and mental,  continue to play second fiddle with dire consequences to the wellbeing of the Nation and the economy sinks into an even deeper depression and that’s before Brexit really kicks in. Now is the winter of our discontent for sure but how best to mitigate that? Perhaps we should revisit herd immunity and focus on who constitutes the herd. Clearly sending the old and vulnerable into the frontline of viral attack back in the spring had predictable consequences and should never have been sanctioned. But we know the high risk group – those previously shielding, the elderly and those with various complex health issues . Most of my contacts of that ilk still remain very circumspect. Could it be that we now maintain and enhance support to the vulnerable but relax, rather than tighten, restrictions on the rest of the population allowing life, education, business, retail to continue in a more normal vein? This has been discussed but rejected as a policy but has a proper options appraisal been undertaken? It is not a case of which policy is the better but a Morton’s Fork and which is the least damaging. A more liberal approach for the majority does carry risk, still depends on the public maintaining precautions like social distancing and masks as best possible and will incur casualties and deaths but could it be that we look to the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill – which decisions and actions will bring the greatest advantages to the highest number of people?

As one of the vulnerable I’ve been maintaining extreme care to protect myself irrespective of Government guidelines and I suspect that most others have done the same. I don’t envisage doing anything different for the next six months but would suggest that we need enhanced support as needed on an individual basis. Despite the Government mantra I found access to supermarket delivery spaces hard to come by in the spring and suggest they should be available as a given and free of charge. Food parcels only for those that are financially challenged – most of us don’t need these and indeed never accepted them. Access to technology for those who don’t have it and can’t afford it, free taxis in lieu of the bus pass when family and friends are unavailable, an occasional haircut at home  and other support as needed. I suspect most of us would ask for little seeing health protection as the overriding consideration.

As we increasingly reconcile ourselves to the fact that the Covid virus is to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future and probably beyond – even if a vaccine does arrive next year – then perhaps we also need to constantly review strategies and policies for how we all live those lives for maximum safety, wellbeing, education and economic viability. I don’t know the answers but advocate avoiding a tunnel-visioned approach.