From David Maughan Brown in York: School is out

January 5th

So, another year, another lockdown.  One day last week – it doesn’t much matter which, they are all the same – someone, probably our exemplary Prime Minister (in the Concise Oxford’s enigmatic second-choice meaning: ‘serving as a warning’), switched our Secretary of State for Education on and pointed him in the direction of the BBC’s Today studio.  Once he got there, it transpired that he had been programmed by mistake to audition for the BBC’s ‘Just a Minute’ programme by talking non stop, without pause or hesitation, for the full ten minutes of the interview on the subject “Education is our nation’s top priority”, digressing only to complain without hesitation that the Today presenter who had drawn the short straw kept interrupting him by trying to ask questions.   His programmer appeared not to have been told that one of the rules of the game was that he was supposed to avoid repetition.  It became apparent very rapidly that whoever is responsible for robotics in Downing Street hasn’t yet got on top of programming Williamson to voice his repetitive message in something other than a monotone.  The gist of what he had been programmed to say was, you will have gathered, that education is a national priority, and that schools would most certainly reopen on schedule on 4th January.

On December 30th the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (the SAGE that scientific experts decided they needed to establish when it became apparent that Dominic Cummings was trying to exert his malign influence on the official SAGE) warned that a third national lockdown, was “vitally necessary”.  On 18th December the Office of National Statistics had calculated that the rate of Covid19 infection in children was much higher than that in adults: the proportion of the 2-6 year-old population in England infected with Covid19 was more than twice that of those who were over 50, and that of the 7-11 year-old population more than three times that number.  A study released by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on 23rd December had concluded that the government would have to close primary and secondary schools and universities if the infection rate was not going to continue to worsen.  

On Wednesday 30th the Government yielded to pressure and postponed the start of the Spring Term for all secondary, and some primary schools in London, to mid-January, in spite of education being a national priority.  By Saturday 2ndthe government had performed another U-turn, telling primary schools in London not to open the following Monday, generously allowing parents almost the whole weekend to make childcare arrangements.  This was somewhat ironic given the same government’s threat to take legal action against some (Labour) London Councils for trying to ignore the fact that education is a national priority by closing their Covid-hit schools for the last week before Christmas.  On Sunday 3rd it was reported that the National Association of Headteachers was urging all schools to move to home learning and that it was taking legal action against the Department of Education, demanding to know the scientific evidence on which the insistence on keeping schools open was based.  At the same time the National Education Union reminded its members that they were not obliged to go to work if the conditions they were expected to work in were unsafe.

All of which was a slow and painfully protracted lead-up to the moment on Monday 3rd when Johnson, hair half-brushed and spasmodically jerking clenched fists for once kept more or less under statesmanlike control, announced our third national lockdown – despite the fact that education is our national priority. At our resurrected Downing Street daily news conferences that afternoon, when Johnson was asked in effect why he had waited until millions of potentially infected children had been brought back to infect others at school for just one day before closing all schools, colleges and universities as part of a national lockdown, he replied: “We wanted to keep schools open but, alas, it became clear that the data wasn’t (sic. – and he prides himself on his Latin) going to support that.”  Given that the day before he had baldly declared that “schools are safe”, the implication was that the data from 18th December had only become known the night before.  Telling the entire nation such a bare-faced lie on such a critical matter would not have been regarded as particularly statesmanlike in the pre-Trumpian era.  So the classrooms were empty today while over 62,000 people in UK tested positive for Covid; 30,000 people suffered in hospital with Covid; over 1000 people died From Covid; and our official underestimate of Covid-related deaths in UK rose to over 77,000.   The wheel has come full cycle and “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has once again trumped education as the national priority.  One just has to hope it isn’t too late to save the NHS

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Light Thickens

December 19th

It feels as though we in UK are on the cusp of an historic moment of enormous significance, as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tells us that there is still a chance of a free trade agreement with the EU, but emphasizes that the path is narrowing very fast.  Will our portly and lumbering Prime Minister manage to squeeze himself along that narrow path above a cliff-edge, whose dangers he has been warned about ad nauseam for the past four years, without either stumbling or throwing himself over the edge, taking us all with him?  Does he even want to try?  Boris Johnson, the supreme opportunist, who only decided to support the ‘Leave’ side in the referendum because he thought that was the best route to becoming Prime Minister, is rumoured now to be the most extreme Brexiteer of them all.

We have saddled ourselves with a government that is capable of threatening to bring legal action against the Labour Councils of Greenwich and Islington for having the temerity to close their schools for the Christmas break a week early and do their teaching online one week, because ‘Education is a National Priority’, and the next week of instructing schools to open their doors to only a minority of their pupils for the first week of term after Christmas and do their teaching online so that they can roll out an entirely unfeasible coronavirus testing programme.   It won’t have been coincidental that the legal threat was directed at Labour-run Councils.   So schools that had up to 21 members of staff away, either with the virus or self-isolating because of it, were forced to stay open, and teaching staff who desperately need a break after a very difficult and demanding term will have to spend their Christmas and New Year preparing for the logistically extremely complicated roll-out of the testing, that includes the training of hundreds of volunteers to administer the tests before the start of term.

Responses to the Tories way of handling their ‘National Priority’ have been vitriolic.  Paul Whiteman, the leader of the National Association of Headteachers has called it a “shambles” and accused the government of having ‘handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the eleventh hour.’  The National Education Union has told Gavin Williamson, our adolescent Secretary of State for Education, that his plans are ‘inoperable’: “Telling school leaders, on the last day of term [for many schools], that they must organise volunteers and parents, supported by their staff, to test pupils in the first week of term, whilst Year 11 and 13 pupils are on site for in-school teaching, is a ridiculous ask.”   Both unions have, as one might expect, been too polite to put it more bluntly and say that, once again, our government has shown itself totally incapable of distinguishing its collective arse from its elbow or, in more northerly terms, of ‘knowing t’other from which’.

Meanwhile the key sticking point in the post-Brexit trade negotiations appears to be the fishing industry which represents 0.12% of our national GDP and employs less than 0.1% of our national workforce.  What remotely sane government is prepared to hole its entire Covid-hit economy below the water-line for the sake of ensuring that its fishermen can rule its waves, even if those fishermen will still have to try to sell the majority of their newly-tariffed fish into a justifiably unforgiving European Union?

It is difficult for pessimism not to outweigh optimism when looking to the new year, and four more years of a shambolically incompetent and dishonest government, elected, as much as anything, on the strength of lies and populist xenophobia.  The ‘Home Office’ label suggests that that particular disgrace of a government department can be taken as representative of the country that is our home.  Leaving the issue of immigration entirely on one side, recent figures have shown that, under the auspices of the Home Office, black people in UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched, than white people; five times more likely to have force used against them by the police; and four times more likely to be arrested.  With memories of apartheid South Africa still all too vivid, it is perhaps unsurprising that pessimism should from time to time find its way into one’s poems.

Light thickens
 
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
(Shakespeare: Macbeth)
 
Light thickens.  Hope – hollowed to husks,
unsettled by stirrings in the air, 
whispers from the long grass –
waits for the wind to blow it away.
 
Dark shapes circle.
Hatched on the fringes of our rooky woods,
gorging on hate and fear,
they devour to husks the seeds of hope.
 
Their hate and fear is of the other, 
easy to sight, eagle-eyed, 
in the clear bright light of day,
but colour fades in the thickening light.
 
All sentinels who sound alarm
are othered now with stiff salutes,
as crosses are raised on distant hills
to await their time for burning.