From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Who goes first?

Lord Sumption. Wrong Again

January 18.  It’s getting nearer.  Last week a 93 year-old friend and neighbour was vaccinated.  Today it is announced that my cohort, the 70-plus and clinically vulnerable, are to receive invitation letters (in fact this morning’s post brings only a bank statement and the latest edition of the Journal of Cultural and Social History, ojoy).

Despite earlier fears, this is a party which most of us want to attend.  The latest survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that 86% of the population said they were ‘very or fairly’ likely to accept a vaccination in the period 7-10 January, up from 82% in before Christmas.  Most of the remainder were either uncertain or had already had it.  Only 3% responded that they were ‘very unlikely’ to take one, the same figure as those who by then had been vaccinated.*

Given the inescapable presence of hard-core conspiracy theorists in any population, this is as near to an general acceptance in principal as might be achieved at this stage in the process.   I argued in an earlier post (‘Anti-Vax’, July 7) that the numbers unloading to pollsters their grievances against the state, research-based science, big pharma, transmission masts, were likely to shrink once the hypothesis became a reality, and this appears to be happening.

According to the official timetable, the priority groups are to be vaccinated by mid-February, with the whole of the population gaining protection by September.  There remains a question of whether this is the most sensible strategy.

We don’t need to endorse the view of our old friend Lord Sumption, who is in more trouble this week for mis-construing the obvious and mis-describing the reality.  He argued in a current affairs programme yesterday that the elderly were “less valuable” than the young, elevating simple arithmetical fact that they have fewer years to live into a profoundly unacceptable dismissal of their lives.  And as with others opposing the lockdown regime, he was factually plain wrong in claiming that the restrictions on socialising do not reduce infection across the population.**

The more interesting question is whether the young should be left to last.  The 70-plus is not the most infected section of the population, and therefore not the most likely to infect others.  We  received last week a communication from Shropshire Council indicating that the rate for the elderly in the county is half that of the 20-29 age group.  Nationally the ONS finds a similar distribution, using slightly different age-bands.  On January 2, 3.16% of the 15-24 age group tested positive, with a steady decline across the cohorts to 1.06% for the 70 and over.**

At face, these disparities are not surprising.  The retired do not need to go out to work, and less likely to be found in shopping precincts, bars and all-night raves.  My frail elderly neighbour who has now received his vaccination has been wholly locked down since the end of March, irrespective of the fluctuations in the official rules and advice.  He is absolutely no threat to anyone else.  The same is pretty much true of my household.  Where they have gone out of doors the 70-plus were found by the ONS to be more likely than the 16-29 cohort to answer positively to the question ‘have you avoided physical contact with others when outside the home?’***

Furthermore the young appear to be suffering psychologically more than the old.  The current ONS ‘overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays’ score rises steadily from 5.9% for the 16-29 cohort to 7.3% for those now due to receive their vaccination invitations.  There is an even sharper disparity in the loneliness measure, ranging from 13% to 5% for the same groups.****

So the young are having a tougher time and are more likely to catch and transmit the virus.  Why not vaccinate them first?

The short and irrefutable answer, pace Lord Sumption, lies in the age-specific rates for hospitalisation and death, together with the obvious need to keep fit those caring for the ill and the elderly, and to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed to the cost not only of Covid sufferers but those with any other serious illness.  But there is a price to be paid for this strategy.  Assuming the vaccination roll-out continues as promised, the mortality rates will fall much faster than those for infection. 

It really will be the autumn and not the spring before it will begin to be safe to resume anything like our normal lives.

*https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata, Table 12

** https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/jan/17/jonathan-sumption-cancer-patient-life-less-valuable-others

***https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19infectionsurveypilot/latest

*****https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata, Table 7.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: The Exception

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Knightsbridge Circle

January 15.   The Government has taken, or has had forced upon it, a decision of principle.  The Covid vaccines are not on the market.  The rich cannot buy immunity.

There is a sense, indeed, in which the vaccine programme offers a temporary reversal of the pattern throughout the pandemic of the poor suffering more than the prosperous.  Many of the staff in the NHS and care homes who are now at the head of the queue are amongst the relatively low paid who have been most at risk in recent months.  

Initially it looked as if the wealthy were to be punished for their self-indulgence, as holiday-makers skiing in northern Italy came back to Britain with the virus.  But as it became embedded across the population, the most vulnerable were those who could not afford to work at home, or who lacked adequate domestic space, or who had acquired underlying health conditions though decades of poor diet and inadequate health care.

Now all were to be equal in the programme.  However, the Government reckoned without the culture of the rich.  The Daily Telegraph, where else, has just reported on the offer being made by the private concierge service, Knightsbridge Circle, which charges a basic £25,000 a year for membership.  It looks to be worth every penny.  “A carefully curated membership”, says its website, “ensures that clients receive unparalleled access to the very best of everything that life has to offer.”

This includes jumping the vaccination queue. 

The founder of Knightsbridge Circle, one Stuart McNeil, explained to the Daily Telegraph the recent addition to his service: 

“the inoculations are already well underway, with members based both in the UK and abroad flying out for vaccination holidays, many on private jets. ‘It’s like we’re the pioneers of this new luxury travel vaccine programme. You go for a few weeks to a villa in the sunshine, get your jabs and your certificate and you’re ready to go,’ says McNeill, who assumes that many such members have flown out under the business/education trip exemption. ‘Lots of our clients have business meetings in the UAE.’”

The cost for a curated member is certainly manageable:

“While the potential upper end cost of such a trip is mammoth, McNeill approximates a cost of around £40,000 for a month-long trip to Dubai with first class Emirates flights, meet and greet, accommodation in a sea view Jumeirah Beach apartment, vaccination and membership for two.”

But, dear reader, you ask, is this not illegal?

Well yes, but then again no, but then again it depends on whether Priti Patel wants to enforce her own laws.

It is certainly illegal to take flights for pleasure.  The wording of the new lockdown is clear enough: “You must not leave or be outside of your home except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. This is the law.” However, a “reasonable excuse” includes “work, where you cannot reasonably work from home.”  As it is well known that the super-rich live in hovels without desk space or internet connections, it is of course necessary for them to go out to earn their weekly pittance.  As for distance, the rules also say, “if you need to travel you should stay local – meaning avoiding travelling outside of your village, town or the part of the city where you live.”  The UAE, as we know, is just next door to the City of London, particularly when you have a private jet.  No problem.

What is so heart-warming about Stuart McNeil is that he has not lost his moral compass in supplying this service.  According to the article, he “is keen to note that Knightsbridge Circle has not vaccinated anybody under the age of 65.” “We still have a moral responsibility to make sure that people that really need it get it, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on.”  

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.  McNeill’s only regret is that the Government has yet to make the vaccine available to his private clinic in Harley Street: “I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that Boris allows us to do this.”

It can only be a matter of time.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Home Entertainment

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January 14.  “UK lockdowns fuel record year for home entertainment spending” runs a headline.* 

A total of £9bn was spent during 2020 on digital home entertainment services in the UK.  The biggest winners were video channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ whose sales ‘surged by 38% year on year.’

That these companies and their share price have had a good pandemic comes as no surprise.  2020 constituted the perfect conditions for their market.  For three quarters of the year their main rival, the cinema, was either subject to distancing regulations or closed altogether.  Other entertainments outside the home were similarly constrained. 

In such circumstances it must be questioned whether ‘surged’ is too strong a verb.  When the UK Covid death rate grows from 2 on 7 September 2020 to 1564 yesterday, that’s a surge.  The performance of the home entertainment industry looks by contrast to have been comparatively modest.

The pandemic struck a market that was already growing rapidly.  During 2019 the number of UK subscribers to Netflix grew by 13% to 11,470 million.  That the rate of acquisition of new customers was three time higher the following year is the least that might be expected given the temporary destruction of its main area of competition. 

There are perhaps two explanations for this limited expansion.

The first is that like so much of domestic consumer spending, the main patterns of behaviour were in place before the pandemic struck. The media analysist Omdia concludes that the performance of Netflix had “exaggerated already existing and underlying trends”,** which is probably true across the piece.  My household had already acquired an internet-connected television and decided what it wanted to subscribe to.  The only addition during the year were the art-house channels of Mubi and Curzon cinema, which we only occasionally watch (though we have discovered the strange and wonderful films of Roy Anderson).  As with so many digital services, the graph of growth must flatten as penetration of the market nears saturation. 

The second is that we all responded to successive lockdowns with greater effort and ingenuity than might be expected.  We did not just slump in front of the box with a drink in our hand.  We took walks, we worked in the garden while the light lasted, and we addressed projects around the house.  Amongst the recently published financial reports is one from Kingfisher, the leading DIY supplier through brands such as B&Q and Screwfix.  The newspaper headline in this case is “Lockdown DIY Craze.”***  Over the two months between 1 November to 9 January, sales were 16.9% up over the same period the previous year.  Again the report is subject to journalistic over-excitement.  An increase of a sixth is no “craze”, but it does indicate a desire finally to undertake long-standing home improvements [see my post “Two Panels”, 26 November].

We also have some information about what we chose to watch on our television sets during 2020.  The most popular video, boxed or downloaded, was Frozen II, with sales of 973,000.  This suggests a market driven by children, or by parents driven to distraction finding them something to do.  I have yet to encounter this film, so have no explanation for its success.  Instead I ask my oldest granddaughter, now eight years old, to compare the sequel to the original.  She writes:

“yes I have watched it and I do think that it is a little bit better than the first one because it has quite a lot more to it and so it is a bit more exciting. There is also a little bit of a mystery in it because they have to find out what happened to their parents and how they met. There are also lots of different elements to the story, more people and more adventures and more mysteries!”

Better get a copy!

*https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jan/08/uk-lockdowns-fuel-record-year-for-home-entertainment-spending?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

**https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2020/12/26/12-million-britons-sign-streaming-lockdown/

***https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/12/bq-owner-says-lockdown-diy-craze-boosted-festive-sales

From David Vincent in Shrewbury, UK: Stoats and Weasels

January 12. Badger, Rat, Mole and Toad would be deeply concerned. As a result of the enforced absence of humans from the National Trust property of Plas yn Rhiw on the Lleyn Peninsular, it is reported this week that stoats and weasels have moved out of the wild wood and have been seen in the gardens around the house.

The effect of successive lockdowns on the natural world have been complex. In broad terms, the story is one of an initial impact followed by a slow return to the prevailing crisis. There are many accounts of the sudden pleasures afforded by the cessation of noise and pollution. Here, for instance, Tobias Jones writes of Northern Italy in mid-April, at the time a global hotspot of the virus.

“I live in Parma, but despite the profound anguish here in Italy, it also feels, paradoxically, as if the world has come right in some way. With our despoiling suddenly stopped, wildlife is returning with innocent ebullience. Bottlenose dolphins have been playfully leaping in the waters around Venice. The canals are so crystalline that swans, and shoals of fish, have returned. Hares graze undisturbed in parks in Milan. Deer have been strolling the golf courses of Sardinia and paddling along sandy beaches. Mallards are bathing in Piazza di Spagna and birds have been nesting in the crooks of closed-up, disused wing-mirrors… In some ways it’s like a blissed-out stoner’s dream of what the world might be. The “Pianura Padana”, the flat plain of the Po valley, usually has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The air is now perfumed by spring. You can see the mountains. Two weeks ago we were singing Rino Gaetano’s The Sky Is Evermore Blue from our balconies.”*

Professional naturalists like Helen MacDonald sniffed that such wildlife had always been around, but no-one noticed it. Nonetheless the glimpse of what could be a new normal was at once a relief from the pandemic and a promise of what might in the future be possible.

The true measure of the pandemic year comes in the newly-released figures for the global temperature in 2020. It might be expected that with an overall fall of 7% in fossil fuel burning there would be at least a temporary decline. Instead, the year registered the joint highest temperature on record, shared with 2016. All that has been avoided as a consequence of the pandemic is a new highest figure in its own right.

In the short term, there are few positive signs. Road traffic has returned to or exceeded 2019 volumes as soon as restrictions have been lifted. London and other cities have not rediscovered the birdsong-rich silence of the beginning of the first lockdown. Plane travel is set to resume at pre-pandemic levels whilst trains and buses are unlikely to recover for the foreseeable future. As factories recommenced production after the first lockdown, pollution in China rapidly reappeared. In developed countries, long-nurtured reforms were postponed whilst governments grappled with larger problems. In Britain the introduction of Clear Air Zones was halted in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bath and other cities. There was a general reprioritising of government activity away from the green agenda to more pressing, and more expensive, responses to the medical emergency. In the developing world, the collapse of eco-tourism defunded programmes for protecting wildlife.

Where there are grounds for hope over the last few months it is mostly in changes which have little or nothing to do with the health crisis, particularly the continuing sharp falls in the cost of renewable energy and the rapid adoption of electric vehicles.

The specific impact has to be measured not in figures but in states of mind. All over the developed world people in cities as well as the countryside have been afforded a real-time preview how nature could look and sound if human populations exercised better control of their activities.

And after a Trump-led decline in confidence in the potential of global co-operation, the borderless engagement with the virus, including the scientific endeavour of vaccine development, has renewed optimism about the potential of human collaboration to respond to the climate crisis. The pandemic itself will not generate change. It will require ambitious planning over the long term.

“… the Badger settled himself into an arm-chair, and said, ‘Well, we’ve got our work cut out for to-night and it will probably be pretty late before we’re quite through with it.’”

*Tobias Jones, Guardian, 12 April, 2020.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Baroness Barran and the Epidemic of Loneliness

January 8. The Guardian runs a piece on loneliness over Christmas:

“A volunteer phone call service for older and vulnerable social housing residents and a homemade Christmas food delivery service are among a number of initiatives being singled out for praise as the government announces a £7.5m fund to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in England.”*

It’s the kind of story that makes you want to give up as a writer altogether.

Last Spring I published a book whose penultimate chapter sought to outlaw forever the phrase “epidemic of loneliness” which was then in widespread use and fuelling what Fay Bound Alberti described as a “moral panic”. I reiterated my arguments in sundry interviews and blogs.

At the time it seemed as if history was on my side. The casual use of a medical term as a metaphor for a social condition surely could not survive the arrival of a real epidemic. In reality, severe loneliness was nowhere near as prevalent as was claimed, and it was in no sense an infectious disease. There could be no vaccine against it (though there are continuing reports of attempts to find a pill to reduce loneliness).

But here, eight months on, with Covid running rampant, the phrase leads a story in a reputable newspaper with no attempt at authorial distancing. Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, never the brightest candle on the parliamentary Christmas cake, is elsewhere quoted as saying that the covid pandemic has “created a silent epidemic of loneliness”,** forgetting that such an “epidemic” originally preceded the pandemic. As has been the case throughout, the Office for National Statistics scores for ‘often/always’ lonely have barely moved. The latest figure, released today, covering the Christmas period of 22 December to 3 January, is unchanged at 6%.***

In part it is just lazy journalism by the Guardian, copying across the language of press releases. More broadly it is a legacy of the Government’s initial loneliness strategy published in 2018,**** and the concomitant appointment of the world’s first “loneliness minister”, now Baroness Diana Barran, who is lodged in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport [Who she? Good works on domestic abuse, but perhaps most notable for her father, no less than Count Cosmo Diodono de Bosdari – straight out of The Leopard] Then as now, there is a vast mis-match between ambition and investment. In 2018, £20m was to be spread round various projects to achieve a reconnection of British society. In the new initiative, pocket money is to be spent “bringing society and communities together” in the midst of a crisis where the standard currency for state intervention is counted in billions.

The founding strategy was reviewed in January 2020.***** The Department was still working on measuring the problem, stated to be “somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population” (p. 3), a gap of about eight million lonely people. It reported on various small-scale ventures designed to “celebrate and better support organisations who work tirelessly to help people build stronger connections and develop their sense of belonging.” Looking forward, just as coronavirus reached our shores, the review promised that “The Minister for Civil Society will continue to lead this work and to chair the cross-government Ministerial Group on Tackling Loneliness, ensuring government commitments are delivered and built on so that far fewer people feel alone and disconnected over the next decade.”

There is a certain charm in the survival of this kind of misty goodwill at a time when everything is more desperate and much, much more expensive.

It is also simply a distraction. The main causes of searing loneliness are systemic failures in mental health care, inadequate access to GPs and hospitals especially by those with disabilities, declining community services, both professional and voluntary, and material deprivation including housing. The only short-term counter to these pressures during the pandemic has been greater neighbourhood engagement with the lives of those separated from each other by lockdown and shielding, and increasingly sophisticated use of the connecting technologies of communication.

In the short term, the balance sheet has yet to be drawn up. Beyond the pandemic, the solutions will only be found in large-scale structural reforms.

* https://www.theguardian.com/global/commentisfree/2020/dec/20/pandemic-behavior-coronavirus-plague-defoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

**https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/05/poll-reveals-scale-of-home-alone-christmas-in-the-uk-this-year?

CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other***https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/8january2021.

****HM Government, A connected society A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change (London: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (October 2018).

*****https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/loneliness-annual-report-the-first-year

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: One flag or two?

January 7.  In Zoomworld, we have all become conscious of the backgrounds behind our heads as we talk. 

Bookcases are the default for those whose business is words, but then which spines should be in view (not my Elmore Leonard collection, safely out of sight in a bedroom), and for regular dialogists, should there be occasional changes on the shelves to indicate that they are more than wallpaper?

You may be certain that serious thought has been given to the sets in front of which we are addressed by our political masters.

Boris Johnson’s handlers long ago determined that a rather dull, bookless room in Number 10 should be enlivened by two union jacks, identically furled so that the bright red of the cross of St. George is prominent.  Apart from the panelling in the room and a slogan tacked to the podium, there is nothing else to inform the eye. The clearly brand-new flags convey the principal message.  Never mind that Johnson and his Government, through Brexit and the clumsy handling of Covid negotiations with the nations have done what may be irreparable damage to the Union.  Shame was surgically removed from Johnson’s psyche long before he became a public figure. 

Thus on Monday the third lockdown is announced from Downing Street with the two flags just to the left of his podium as the Prime Minister looks at the camera.  At a subsequent news conference they are placed on either side.

We live in a democracy.  Johnson’s broadcast is followed a day later by a response from the Leader of the Opposition.  Here again the set has been carefully designed.  Behind Keir Starmer’s head and shoulders is a dark screen to minimise any distraction.  The only other object on view is, again, a union jack, also on his left side.  It looks exactly like Johnson’s, freestanding on its pole, once more furled to foreground the cross of St. George.  It is clearly unused, very definitely not a banner that a trade union once marched behind, or that had been waved on a barricade, shot through with bullets by the forces of reaction.

So what does Starmer’s flag mean?

Most obviously that the Party is desperate to escape the label of unpatriotic that was hung around Corbyn’s neck, most notoriously when he failed to blame the Russians for the Salisbury novichok poisoning.

More generally that Starmer sees his role in the midst of the pandemic as a loyal echo of the official message.  In a five-minute address he makes only the most generalised criticism of the Conservatives.  “There are serious questions for the Government to answer”, he says, furrowing his brow, mentioning the wasted 22 billion on testing, and the recurrent delays in announcing actions.  But, he concludes, “whatever our quarrels with the government and the prime minister, the country now needs us to come together”.  Most of the speech repeats Johnson’s vaguely uplifting call for a national endeavour.  It ends by appropriating the Queen: “We will recover.  We’ll rebuild. We’ll see each other again.”

There is a recognisable short-term strategy at work, and without question the country needs a collective effort, as Johnson and/or Starmer puts it, to win the race between the vaccine and the virus.

But it will not do.  If we are to end this crisis with any sense of forward propulsion, Starmer has to ride two horses, wave two flags.  The delays reflect the incompetence of a government recruited from Brexit loyalists and led by a serial liar.  The maladministration, from PPE shortages to testing scandals, to the likely failure of the vaccination timetable, is a product of a semi-corrupt faith in the private sector and the hollowing out of local democracy.  The immense variations in every aspect of the pandemic experience, from infection and death rates to coping with school closures, are a consequence of decades of  growing inequality which have urgently to be reversed.  If the union jack is waved, there must be some sense of how the loyalty of the Scots in particular can be regained by a party whose representation north of the border has been all but wiped out. 

In the midst of the Second World War, Churchill viewed any attempt to plan for peacetime as a distraction from the fight with Hitler.  But in 1942, when victory was far from certain, Beveridge wrote his plan and Labour won the 1945 landslide because the Tories were, rightly, not trusted to implement it. 

We need to come out of this national struggle with a vision for the future already conceived and articulated.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Time Divides

Boris Johnson in his days as Mayor of London

January 5, 2021. At first it was a calculation of infection scores. My son and his wife and four-month-old baby had found a loophole in the Tier 4 regulations and driven up to spend Christmas with us. As the year ended, it seemed prudent to delay the return to London.

In Shropshire, in common with other counties on the western fringe of England, the infection rate is still relatively low. In the last week of 2020 it stood at 150 per hundred thousand, half the national average. In Waltham Forest, my son’s borough in East London, the rate was six times higher at 913. Safer to stay here, with the clean winds blowing in from the Welsh hills.

Then two further developments. A neighbour rings. A couple in a house at the bottom of our lane are in hospital with Covid. Both are in the middle years of life, but are seriously unwell, one is receiving oxygen. On the other side of the lane, a woman whose land abuts our garden is also stricken, though still at home. That’s three cases in twenty nearby villagers, the equivalent of 15,000 per 100,000. So much for aggregate statistics.

Later in the day, Boris Johnson is back on our television. There is to be a complete lockdown in England and the vulnerable must once more shield themselves. No one should travel except for limited and necessary purposes. No end date is given. My granddaughter and her parents who came for a fortnight will be here until Spring.

Thus time divides. At one level, it crawls to a standstill. It has always been difficult to detect the diurnal pulse in January and February, and now there will be nothing to separate one day from the next, one week from another. In sympathy with the state’s prohibitions, even the weather is at a halt, the thermometer travelling between minus and plus two from a late dawn to an early dusk. In my post-employment life I have no deadlines to structure my labours; even zoom-world seems asleep. There is no timetable to manage or anticipate. My wife and I are in the fourth category of vaccination. To reach us by mid-February according to Johnson’s vague ‘given a fair wind’ strategy, 13.2 million procedures will have to be carried out at a rate of two million a week. History, it has to be said, offers no comfort.

At another level time is changing almost minute by minute. When she finally goes home, our granddaughter will have spent around half her life with us. We visited and were visited by our other London-based grandchildren and took immense interest and pleasure in their company, but such encounters amounted to little more than snapshots of their growth. Not since our own children were born have we had a ringside view of the minute but fundamental developments that continually take place. And on this occasion we don’t have to deal with nappies or lose acres of unrecoverable sleep.

So for instance I watch her hands, waving about almost uncontrollably when she arrived, now increasingly precise instruments for manipulating objects. Toys, which on Christmas day were beyond her reach and comprehension, are now being incorporated into her daily activities.

Keep her safe, keep us all safe, and the next months are going to be nothing but a drama.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Last Writes

The Severn in Flood this morning

Last Writes

December 20.  In my final Covid-20 post, I want to return to the topic that has occupied most of my working hours over the last three years, culminating in the publication of a book in the midst of the crisis. 

Solitude and its shadow, loneliness, have remained central matters of concern as unprecedented controls are imposed and re-imposed on who we may associate with.   I noted in earlier entries how, in spite of the continuing drama of rising, falling and once more rising infection and death rates, the indices of emotional wellbeing have remained remarkably stable.  As Christmas looms, I have looked again at the most reliable measurement, the ‘social impacts’ data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Solitude is not counted.  Now, as in the past, the experience is too diffuse to be readily reduced to numbers, and there is no political imperative to generate tables that will justify or measure the consequences of government intervention.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is constantly quantified.  The core category is ‘often / always’ lonely.  This is where the serious psychological or physiological suffering takes place, creating an urgent need for formal or informal support.  The score at the beginning of the pandemic was 6%, much the same as it was in the quieter waters of 2019.  The latest score, for December 10-13, is just a point higher at 7%.  For those over seventy it is 5.*

ONS also publishes a time series for the larger group of ‘often, always, or some of the time’ lonely.  There are 35 observation points between 20-23 March and 10-13 December. In the first, 24% of the population fall into this category.  In the last, again just a point higher at 25%.  In between there are minor fluctuations between a high of 27, and a low, in late July, of 20.**

This stasis, which contrasts so sharply with the switchback ride of government regulation, generates conclusions which may hold more broadly for the pandemic.

The first is that managing solitude and loneliness has a long history (my book is available in all good outlets and can shortly be read in South Korean, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Spanish).  Modern societies have developed a raft of techniques for exploiting the benefits of living alone and avoiding the worst of the pitfalls.  In this regard as in so many others, Covid-19 struck a population full of resources built up amidst the consumer and communications revolutions in the modern era.

The second is that faced with a crisis for which no country was adequately prepared, individuals and social groups have proved far more adaptable than the arthritic structures of government.  Community groups have come into being focusing on the needs of those suffering from the absence of company.  Neighbours have looked out for neighbours with increased vigilance.  And those most vulnerable have acquired new skills.  As with so many of my generation I have gained a new mastery of Zoom and its rivals, without which my isolation from children and grandchildren would have been far more profound.

The third is that we live in time.  Any experience, negative or otherwise, is conditioned by its duration.  ‘One definition of loneliness’ I wrote in my book, ‘is that it is solitude that has continued for longer than was intended or desired.’***  If there is no ending that we can see or control, then it becomes unbearable.  With yesterday’s emergency Tier 4 lockdown, Christmas is going to be a trial for many separated families, despite the special dispensation to form a support bubble with others if ‘you are the only adult in your household’.  But we do know that the vaccine is coming.

And tenth and lastly.  A fortunate few can manage the experience and find in it some meaning if they have the chance to reflect and write.  So my best thanks to Brenda and Anne for creating this opportunity and to those who have read and commented on the posts.  We must keep talking to each other.

*Office for National Statistics, ‘Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain: 18 December 2020,  Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module)’, 10 to 13 December, Table 13.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata

**Ibid, Table 1, Trends on Headline Indicators.

***A History of Solitude, p. 241.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: A Covid Encyclical

December 1.  A literary question:  Who is the author of this concluding passage of a book published today?

“By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings.  By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way.  By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food, we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better…. By making the restoration of our people’s dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions.  To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.” (132-3)

You might search amongst the leading ideologues on the left in Britain and the US, but the answer is Argentina via Rome.  They are the words of Francis, 266th pope of the Catholic Church, in Let Us Dream.  The Path to a Better Future.

I would not expect to find myself reading such a text amidst the widespread commentary on the pandemic. I was raised a methodist and have no sympathy for religious hierarchies and rituals.

More broadly, organised Christianity has been notably quiet in this crisis.  There are accounts of individual clergy playing active roles in the plenitude of community support groups that have sprung up around the country.  However as institutions, the churches have been marginalised.  Their guidance is not sought, their views are rarely cited.  The drama of illness and death, of caring and curing, has been largely secular.  There have been polite protests by bishops at the controls placed on church services, and occasional acts of publicity-seeking disobedience by evangelical congregations, but little contribution to the main public discourse or programmes of action.  It is a disjuncture that separates this plague from all that preceded it.

In England, the Catholic Church has been further distracted by the continuing fall-out of sexual abuse scandals.  Most shockingly, the leading Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth, where Cardinal Basil Hume was a pupil and teacher, has just been forbidden by the Department for Education to admit any new pupils following a series of damning reports on its performance and management by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  The school is appealing the decision but is fortunate that an over-full news agenda has not given the event more publicity. 

The pope admits in his book to a collective responsibility: “As I will not tire of saying with sorrow and shame, these abuses were also committed by some members of the Church.” (25)  Further he is aware of his many conservative critics who by arguing that “there is too much ‘confusion’ in the Church, and that only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body.” (71)  Nonetheless he is determined to use the pandemic to reassert his long-matured views on social and economic reform. 

The engagement with the detail of Covid-19 is slight.  There are no statistics of infection or  investigations of particular experiences.  Rather it is viewed as a revelation of the true fraternity of mankind and “a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” (6)  Sundry biblical texts are cited in support of his case but so also, for instance, are the views of the economist Mariana Mazzucato in her recent The Value of Everything

Let us Dream belongs on one side of the divide between those who believe the pandemic will be followed by a return to normal, with all its minor comforts and major inequalities, and those who see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the agenda for radical change.  “Today” it argues, “we have to avoid falling back into the individual and institutional patterns that have led to Covid and the various crises that surround it: the hyperinflation of the individual combined with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a very few.” (45-6)

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Panels

Consider these panels.

I have just painted them. Together with more than fifty other panels in several rooms in my house.

They stand for virtue postponed. It is a decade or so since last I carried out interior decoration on any scale. After the beginning of the first lockdown their neglect has been a continuing reproach. The pandemic, if ever, is the time to set about such a task. But the months have passed without activity, only partly excused by the need to attend to the garden as spring gave way to summer and what has been a long-flowering autumn. Finally, as Christmas approaches, I have run out of excuses not to clear the rooms, buy supplies of sail white emulsion and assemble my collection of brushes and rollers.

They stand for absorbed attention. All of us locked in our houses have been seeking occupations that will take our minds away from looming dangers and postponed pleasures. Hobbies and handicrafts have been embraced not so much for the outcome as for the distraction of their practice. One of the consequences of living in one end of a cruck-framed medieval house is that routine maintenance demands serious concentration. Over time, the oak moves fractionally one way with variations in heat and moisture, and the plaster in another. Minor cracks open up which have to be meticulously repaired (hence the pollyfilla delivery in my last entry) and then the edges of each panel have to be slowly painted, keeping clean the surrounding oak beams. There is no particular skill, just great care and patience as the brush is drawn down the edge of the plaster. The hours pass, amounting to almost a week for our bedroom alone and its thirty-odd rectangles. Radio 4 reminds me how often its programmes are repeated.

They stand for the domestic climate-heating disaster. The exterior panels consist of a single layer of brick, plastered on either side. Heat passes readily through them. Only some new panels in the gable wall are filled with a modern take on an ancient practice – chopped French hemp, a light, warm equivalent of wattle and daub. Most of the current housing stock is of course better constructed, but almost none of it has been designed to be carbon neutral any more than it was in the fifteenth century. Johnson’s new green strategy will fall at this hurdle. It is just too late and too expensive seriously to reduce the energy footprint of every residence from the latest Barratt estate box to the remnants of much older domestic accommodation.

And they stand for hope deferred. I set out on the task in order somehow to increase the prospect of a family Christmas. What, after all, is the point of such an effort if it is only to be enjoyed by the two of us? But as I put back the furniture and tidy away my paints, the lockdown rules for the festive season are announced. It would be possible for my children and grandchildren to join the Gadarene rush out of London two days before Christmas and back three days later, but the balance of risk is against travel, whatever the regulations. Rates of infection and death show scant sign of declining. School ends too late, the parents cannot fully self-isolate. Our age-group is just as vulnerable as it was, and with the vaccines coming in the New Year, there seems no case for letting our guard drop.

All that can be said is that on Christmas Day we shall have clean walls looking down on our quiet pleasures.