From David Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown blood-pressure

June 14th

For many years in Pietermaritzburg I had my blood-pressure measured more or less every week prior to my having two pints of blood removed so that the plasma could be extracted for the manufacture of an anti-rabies vaccine and the red corpuscles returned to one or other of my arms, both of which still look as if I’ve been mainlining all my life.  My parents had been attacked by a rabid dog in Sierra Leone before I was born; without an effective vaccine I wouldn’t have been born; so it was a kind of pay-back.   Through all the years of apartheid Special Branch harassment, post-apartheid student protests, and everything else South Africa threw at us, my blood pressure, as tested on Monday afternoons, never varied an iota: 100 over 70.  In a much more relaxed retirement, weighing less, and with none of the usual risk factors, my blood-pressure has rocketed over the past two or three months to the point where  I am having to take medication to bring it down from the stratosphere.  Lockdown itself isn’t stressful, so the only possible cause I can come up with is the cack-handed way Covid-19 has been handled and, in particular, the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy, and the blindingly obvious lack of logic of our ‘leaders’.

When it comes to the dishonesty, where does one start?  Given that I can’t spare the time to write ten pages, perhaps I should restrict myself to the first two blood-pressure-raising examples that to come to mind.  Anyone who has been paying any attention knows that the ‘official’ statistic for the death toll from Covid-19 that the government trots out every day, and the BBC dutifully repeats, having avidly listened with its virtual head cocked to one side like the dog in the His Master’s Voice trademark, is a deliberate lie.  It is the figure only for the number who have died after being tested and, as we know, Hancock and company were culpably slow in getting adequate testing up and running.  Even leaving aside the figure for excess deaths, they should be adding in the figures for those who hadn’t been tested but for whom coronavirus had been cited as a cause for their death on their death-certificates.  Meanwhile Matt Hancock keeps adamantly insisting that he ‘threw a protective ring around the care-homes.’   If he did throw his metaphorical protective ring around the care-homes, he must have smeared it with metaphorical novichok first.  How otherwise can one account for a ‘protective ring’ that results in the deaths of more than 16,000 of those it is supposed to be protecting?  Every time I hear another person grieving about a lost parent or grandparent who died in a care-home, that lie intrudes again.

Where hypocrisy is concerned, government endorsement of Cummings’ ‘perfectly understandable’ eye-test comes to mind, but today’s particular gem is ventriloquist-dummy Johnson, no doubt also listening avidly to his master Cummings’ voice, earnestly telling the world that he and Priti Patel won’t put up with ‘racist thuggery’.   What does he think he and his kindred spirit, Nigel Farage, have been doing for the past three years except deliberately flaming the virulent combination of English Nationalism, xenophobia and racist thuggery which took them to their marginal referendum result, then onward and downward to Boris’s success in the General Election, and has now contributed to the violence exercised against the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police?

Where logic is concerned, nobody appears to have even tried to explain the logic whereby one grandparent living by himself or herself can safely form a “bubble” with a family, but, if both are still alive, neither – let alone both – are legally permitted to immerse themselves in the very same ‘bubble’, irrespective of how rigorously they have been self-isolating up to now.   But the supreme illogicality, particularly for a government seemingly agonized over the economy, lies with the recently imposed quarantine on selected people entering the country.  Leaving the USA, Brazil and Sweden aside, almost every single one of the other 200+ countries in the world has handled Covid-19 better than our government, and has a population less likely than ours to carrying the infection as a consequence.  So our government ‘quarantines’ people who are less likely to be infected than the people they will encounter in UK, first by telling them to self-isolate for 14 days, and then by letting them wander off to catch public transport to whatever address they have decided to give, wherever they please in the country, on condition that they promise, ‘scout’s honour’, to be good.  Surely people don’t need Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, to tell them how stupid that is?  There are however, as one would expect, some sheer genius exceptions.  One of the many categories selected for exclusion from the ‘quarantine’ is long-distance lorry-drivers.  This may be sensible from an economic point of view but, given that almost all the countries in Europe have far fewer Covid-19 infections than the UK, it is very peculiar, to say the least, from the perspective of disease control.   Without wishing to impugn the behaviour of long-distance truck drivers, it is worth noting that the spread of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa has been tracked down the routes used by the long-haul truckers.

There is, however, a possible blood-pressure lowering interpretation of this otherwise absurdly illogical ‘quarantine’.   Perhaps our government, instinctively inclined to avoid being upfront about anything at all, for all the supposed ‘transparency’ of the daily Downing Street news conference, has undergone a radical, road-to-Damascus-type conversion.   Perhaps it has relinquished the comfort of its ‘hostile environment’, recanted on its implicit endorsement of Johnson’s ‘piccanninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’ and comparison of women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’, regretted its racist handling of the Windrush scandal and decided it really likes foreigners after all.   Perhaps it really likes them so much, in fact, that it wants to protect the ones who are forgiving enough to visit our country from the possibility of being infected by the rest of us.  Two foreigners did, after all, save Boris’s life – perhaps this is his pay-back.  Our government couldn’t, of course, be upfront about so radical a conversion, as that would instantly lose them every last shred of their credibility with their Trumpian ‘base’.  Perhaps – but, then again, perhaps not.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Repentance

June 4. As an historian, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is missing from the menu of responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Where is the National Day of Fasting?

In part, my sense of omission merely reflects the secular bubble in which I live.  When I enquire, I find that the World Evangelical Alliance designated 29 March as a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting.  ‘The theme of the initiative’, explained the Alliance, ‘is “Lord help!”’  Its impact on Britain passed me by.  On the last Sunday of the month there must have been more people watching their diet because of their waistline than as a form of spiritual apology.

There is a long Christian tradition of responding to outbreaks of infectious disease in this way.  Fast days were instituted in Britain during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721. The theological rationale derived from the concept of special providences and divine judgments.  Natural disasters were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of a community, and required petitionary prayers and promises of repentance if they were to be averted.

During the nineteenth century the growing salience of medical explanations of infectious diseases marginalised this reaction.  According to Phillip Williamson, an authority on this subject, a decisive moment came in 1853, when the Home Secretary Lord Palmerston publicly rejected proposals for a fast day against an outbreak of cholera, arguing that the solution lay in better sanitation and public health.  Now the churches have left the centre of the stage.  Whilst car showrooms have just been re-opened, religious buildings, together with public houses, remain closed for at least another two months.

My view of the marginal role of the Church of England was increased by its response to the Flight out of London.  The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was reported as threatening to sever relations between church and state.  “Unless very soon we see clear repentance,” he said, “including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”   I don’t know why the church of Cranmer and the Prayer Book is now reduced to a twitter hashtag, nor can I understand why any bishop should suppose that Johnson is going to repent of anything.  It’s like asking him to take up ballet dancing or synchronised swimming; it’s just not something he has ever done, knows how to do, would ever want to do.

And yet.  As a Christian, the Bishop had a perfect right to speak of repentance.  It is central to the spiritual rule book of his calling.  There are values, and a structure of faith, forgiveness and redemption to cope with their inevitable infraction in a fallen world.  For all the political excitement, Cummings encountered a basic moral dilemma.  Unlike his employer, he is, by report, a deeply committed family man.  When the virus entered his home, he was faced with a choice between the wellbeing of his immediate social unit, and that of society more broadly.   His panicked solution may have been the wrong one, but he is scarcely the first to make such an error. 

In the event, repentance would have been not only morally but also politically the better course of action.  If in the Number 10 rose garden Cummings had explained his actions and then asked for forgiveness for a mistaken judgment, most of the subsequent damage to his government, and, more importantly, to the public’s trust in the state, would have been avoided.  

We still have a shared moral discourse, the remains, in part, of a Christian heritage.  It is worth reinforcing.

from Steph in London: turning point week

May 31. Capacity over strategy, instinct over compliance, self righteousness and the divine right of kings over competence … all in all a turning point week. Tempers are strained and it’s not the lockdown that is causing the frustration. It’s as if dear Boris and his henchmen are bored now- we are distinguished in having almost the worst figures in the world, nothing is working smoothly, the R number remains steady at too high and now a few more deaths won’t really matter … 10 weeks of grasping at straws, over promising and under delivering tests even the most loyal in society.

Essentially nothing has changed but we are being released albeit slowly (but are the over 70s?)

So now we have to think about meeting the world again – well, up to 6 of them at least. From being a extrovert who loves being with people I feel anxious about being with anybody other than my nearest and dearest, even in the garden. So, Book Club could meet in a garden, as could our Ladies who Lunch group – do I want to? No thank you, not yet.

Happy birthday to my middle son, who turns 45 today. He lives in the Netherlands and heaven knows when I can next give him and the grandchildren a hug – and a present!

From David Maughan Brown in York: minor irritations …

 May 30th

The amorphous and fortunately relatively low-level feelings of claustrophobia, anxiety and loss that accompany the lockdown, for me at least, are resulting in minor irritations assuming greater significance than they merit.   For those of us who have a tendency to be pedantic at the best of times – aggravated in my case by too much exposure to too many student essays over too many years – it is often the use and abuse of language that I find disproportionately irritating.   Covid-19 is highly infectious and it isn’t just people it infects.  At least where English is concerned, it has also infected language.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way the word ‘shield’ has mysteriously mutated under the influence of Covid-19 from being a transitive verb to being an intransitive verb.  Those who are ‘vulnerable – another word whose meaning has been virally affected and now refers to anyone over 70 – are constantly being instructed to ‘shield.’   Shield what? Shield whom?  Shield themselves? Staying at home, dexterously wielding their front doors as their shields?  The closest my dictionaries can get to finding anything resembling a usage of a word meaning ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb is the archaic ‘forfend’, as in ‘Heaven forfend!’  Precisely.  This intransitive usage, adopted by the BBC and seemingly accepted without demur by everyone else, has become so commonplace that I fear that the Oxford Dictionary will have to bow to populist pressure and list ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb in its future editions.

I blame Dominic Cummings, the utterly indispensable sloganmeister who clearly runs the country from his control-centre behind the arras, when he isn’t breaking the rules in County Durham.   Breaking rules has long been known to be his forte and the rules of grammar will be at the very bottom of the hierarchy of rules he has broken.   But on the slogan front his reputed genius also appears to have been undermined by the virus.  Whereas ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and ‘Take back Control!’ clearly struck a popular chord, even if both were vacuous and misleading, ‘Stay Alert!’ and ‘Control the virus!’ clearly don’t.  Whereas the Brexit slogans invited contestation, these second-phase Coronavirus slogans merely invite bemusement and ridicule.  Both have very rapidly become the subject of cartoons and memes, as exemplified by one doing the rounds at present: “So, it turns out the real reason they told us all to stay alert was to watch out for mad bastards with impaired vision tanking it down the A1.”

I suspect that most first year Political Science students would conclude that it isn’t a particularly good idea for a government to become the subject of widespread ridicule at a time of national crisis.  Boris’s political persona as an amiable buffoon who could quote Latin served him well enough in winning a referendum and an election on the back of Cummings’ slogans.  Forty or fifty thousand Covid-19 deaths later, neither looks that clever.  There is usually a good reason why the clown doesn’t manage the circus. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lockdown Fortnight.

26 May. All of us are looking towards the future, seeking to understand how we can draw lessons from the crisis and build upon them.

This is my modest proposal.

From 2021 there shall be a legally-defined annual Lockdown Fortnight.

The Lockdown Fortnight will fall in the last week of June and the first week of July.  During that period, with exceptions listed below, every household will be required to observe full lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight will have four functions:

  • It will serve as a memorial for the tens of thousands who lost their lives in the 2020 UK pandemic, and for the health workers who risked their lives in supporting the afflicted.  Clapping is not enough;
  • It will serve as an annual reminder that we need to be prepared for the recurrence of a global pandemic. Countries, such as South Korea, that had an active memory of the SARS epidemic, were much better prepared for Covid19 than those without such a memory.  During the lockdown the government will be required to make an annual statement of preparedness;
  • It will create a pollution-free interval to remind us of what we have lost and have a right to regain;
  • It will provide a planned break from the distractions of late modernity in order that individuals recollect themselves and the importance of their immediate social networks (and also do the necessary home repairs that otherwise are left undone across the year).

Because it will be planned and of a fixed duration, the disorder and stress of the current crisis can be largely avoided. Before the Lockdown Fortnight, supplies can be purchased, encounters with family and friends can take place, hairdressers can be visited.  Any other practical difficulties can be borne for only fourteen days.

During Lockdown Fortnight, the only permitted movement will be such as can be conducted on foot, or on a bicycle (powered or otherwise).  The only long-distance travel will be pilgrimages to the shrine of St Cummings the Martyr in Durham (and/or Barnard Castle).

The Lockdown Fortnight will be timed for the period of maximum daylight in Britain. It will incorporate the May Bank Holidays which will be moved forward for this purpose. The school summer half terms will be extended to two weeks and also be moved to this period.

The event is partly based on the Potters Fortnight, which was still functioning when I started work at Keele University.  This was a relic of an industrial holiday, when the potbanks were shut for maintenance, and when, before the 1956 Clean Air Act, it was the only time when you could see across the city.

Exemptions to the Lockdown Fortnight will be:

  • Health and related workers, though A and E business may again decline if the pubs are shut.
  • Hospitality workers serving overseas visitors, who will be welcome to bring their currency to Britain and spend it at otherwise un-crowded hotels and bars (on production of a passport).   This will represent a temporary but annual reminder of what we have lost with Brexit-inspired hostility to all foreigners. Britons travelling abroad will have to leave and return before and after the lockdown.
  • Home-working will be permitted although no household will be allowed more than 10 hours video conferencing a week (5 work, 5 social).  Wherever possible factories should arrange their annual maintenance for this period (see Potters Fortnight above). 
  • Sporting fixtures will be closed (the football season will be over), except Wimbledon on the grounds that it provides televised entertainment for those in lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight would be disruptive, but perhaps we have learnt this year that unbroken continuity of event and practice can oppose wisdom and self-knowledge. There may be a small net hit on the national GDP, but everything now is a balance between cost and benefit. See above for the gains.

The regulations will be rigorously policed by the Priti Patel Compassionate Enforcement Agency.