From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 2

September 1st

Any regular readers who had the stamina to soldier on to the end of my last entry might have been left with the uneasy feeling that that might not be the end of the non-coronavirus testing saga, and that they might find themselves subjected to a further chapter in the not too distant future.  If so, their apprehension is about to prove well-founded, probably a lot sooner sooner than they might have feared.

Having been told to anticipate that the results of last week’s hard-won test would be available in a mere five days time, I received an SMS yesterday evening announcing their receipt a day ahead of schedule.  Verily I say unto you, a truly world-beating testing regime – even if it isn’t for Covid-19.    The SMS said: ‘The result of your recent test has been received.  A further test is advised – please collect a form from the surgery at your convenience.’  No three-minute phone-call to say that the result had been received, and not to worry but they thought it would be helpful for me to have another test, or something similar.   Just a bald SMS giving no indication as to who it ‘is advised’ by, or for what reason.  One could only assume that whatever the test had showed up couldn’t be too serious because the style of communication suggested that if, for example, the test had revealed a third-stage brain tumour, the SMS message would have read something like, ‘The result of your recent test has been received, the purchase of a coffin is advised’ or, perhaps more humanely, ‘investment in a funeral plan is advised.’   ‘At your convenience’ rang a little hollow, given that last week’s saga was initiated by the receipt of an electronic form for me to print that didn’t require me, in a Covid-ridden world, to drive in and collect a hard-copy from the surgery.

So, at my inconvenience, I drove into the surgery first thing this morning, idly  wondering whether the NHS might not be on a secret mission to stack up the mileage so that petrol sales could contribute towards life-support for the economy.  I arrived at the surgery half an hour after it was supposed to have opened to find the front door locked and no sign of life whatever, although there were a couple of cars in the reserved parking spaces.  There was no sign on the door indicating opening hours and, as with last week’s surgery, the NHS had not been able to afford the installation of the promised bell to ring.  I checked that my mobile was still boldly declaring the surgery to be OPEN, which appeared to be an outright lie directly out of the Johnson playbook.  So I waited for ten minutes hoping somebody would come, and then steeled myself to try the surgery’s telephone number, which of all the telephone numbers I have ever phoned is the one guaranteed to ensure the most rapid loss of a caller’s will to live.   An asset for an undertaker but not, one might have thought, for a Medical Group.  When the interminable advice about Covid-19, which I must have heard thirty times over the past few weeks, had dragged itself to an end, I opted for the ‘Reception queries’ number and after a miraculously short two or three minutes got a real living person on the end of the line, which seemed a good start.  It didn’t last. I asked whether the surgery, which claimed to be open, was in fact open, the operator said she didn’t know (which seemed odd, given that the number I had phoned was ostensibly the number of the surgery outside whose very front door I was at that moment standing) but she would find out for me, and asked me to hang on for a minute, at which point the phone went dead.  I tried to phone her back after a few minutes, only to be told that the ‘Reception query’ number was now closed and that I should try again in two hours time.  Kafka came to mind again.

After another ten minutes of waiting, I decided that there couldn’t be any harm in banging on the door – it looked strong enough to withstand the force of any pent-up frustration the exercise might release.   Sure enough, a little bit of sustained, but commendably restrained, knocking dragged an extremely surly receptionist out of the bowels of the building, clearly deeply resentful of being interrupted doing whatever it is that receptionists do when doors are locked to ensure that there isn’t anybody to receive.   ‘Do you have an appointment?’ she shouted through the door.  ‘No,’ I replied, at which point she turned around to walk back to whatever it was she had been doing. ‘I was told to come here and pick up a form “at my convenience”,’ I added hastily.  The weight of irony I injected into the last three words passed her by entirely.  She demanded to know my name, date of birth etc. and went off to check whether I was lying.   When it turned out that I wasn’t just a stray passer-by who had nothing better to do than waste her time telling lies and pretending to want a blood-test form, she grudgingly opened a folder that had been lying just inside the door all along, waiting for me and others like me, handed me the form and told me to go to the infamous Nuffield Hospital, scene of last week’s tribulations.   I told her what had happened last week, and asked for an appointment at one of the Group’s clinics.   She couldn’t give me an appointment, that wasn’t her job, I would just have to go to the Nuffield Hospital, which she assured me had reopened for tests, and have the test done there.

Wearily resigned to my fate, I headed back to my car to try my luck at the Nuffield again.  As I got into the car my phone rang and the original receptionist I had managed to contact apologised profusely that I had been cut off.  I thanked her and told her I was on my way to the Nuffield Hospital for the blood-test.   ‘Oh no, you don’t want to go there,’ she said hastily. ‘They are only doing emergency blood tests there now.’ ‘Wouldn’t having to have a retest count as an emergency?’ I asked.  ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said.  ‘I think you would be in the queue for a very long time on the day after a public holiday, and when you got to the front of the queue they would probably say yours wasn’t an emergency.  But, in any case, I’ve managed to get them to fit you in for a test at the Water Lane clinic tomorrow, if you would like that.’  I assured her that I would like that very much indeed, and thanked her profusely for her kindness.  There was no need for her to have done that for me, and her thoughtfulness went much further than she could have imagined to ease the frustration. But, dear reader (as the rather quaint saying goes), don’t bank on this being the last chapter of this particular saga.

There was a time not so long ago, before the blindly ideological drive for ‘austerity’, and the viciously xenophobic immigration policies of the past decade of Tory government put unsustainable pressure on GP practices, when I would have been phoned with my results by my GP, told what they meant and invited in for a blood-test on the same day.  Sadly, those days are gone, and will almost certainly never return.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Investing in a whelk stall?

August 16th

In the unlikely event of future political scientists or historians perusing this diary in future years, they might, depending on their political leanings, be inclined to start making deductions about the effect of lockdown on the mental health of those who have been locked down.  Her Majesty’s Government, duly elected by a mature electorate to grace the illustrious benches of the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, in December 2019 couldn’t possibly have been as utterly hopeless as diarists have tried to make out.  The grumpy carping must have been an irrationally resentful response on the part of mentally fragile people, who happened to have nothing better to do than write diaries, to the wholly rational decision on the part of government to lock them down for their own good.  The tempting alternative would have been to allow a ‘herd immunity’ strategy to sort them out and save billions on state pensions at the same time.  You can never please some people.

A rapid run-through of a random day’s coverage of ‘Home’ news, in this instance yesterday’s, August 15th, by the Independent, a broadly liberal and by no stretch of the imagination radically leftist newspaper (not that ‘paper’ has much to do with an exclusively digital compilation of news-reporting and commentary) might give the historians pause to reconsider that diagnosis.   With the exception of a nod in the direction of VJ-Day, a story about a man who nearly lost a leg as a result of being bitten by a ‘false widow’ spider, and an article on the implications for the Arts of a premature termination of the current furlough arrangements for employees, the rest of the coverage focuses entirely on four issues:  the quarantine regulations, in relation to France in particular; the government’s handling of various NHS related issues; the A-Level debacle; and the on-going situation with cross-channel migrants.  I’ve written about these individually (in some instances several times), but the cumulative impact when they are all extensively covered on the same day is impressive.

The photograph on the front page is of the queues of people at the airport at Nice trying desperately to get a flight back to UK in time for them to arrive before the magic 4am deadline.  The editorial takes this as its topic for the day, suggesting very mildly that, given the implications of 14 days of quarantine, a collective shrug on the part of government and ‘Well, you knew the risks when you went’, isn’t good enough. It goes on to suggest that 30 hours notice of a deadline, generally poor communication, and weak quarantine enforcement, in a context in which the Cummings episode shows that the rules apply to some but not others, aren’t conducive to public confidence or compliance.  For my own part, the 4.00am Saturday deadline left me wondering which particular bit of science the government was following that dictated that anyone who set foot back on British soil at 3.59am was bound to be Covid-free, but anyone who did so at 4.01am needed to go into quarantine for 14 days to protect the rest of us.

Where the NHS is concerned the reports focus on the government’s declared intention to keep the outcomes of inquiries into the Covid-related deaths of 620 health and care workers secret; the recall from NHS hospitals of 200,000 defective gowns, following closely on the heels of the recall of the 50 million defective face masks; and the quiet removal of 1.3 million tests from the running total of coronavirus tests nationally as a tacit admission of double-counting.

The on-going debacle over the A-level ‘results’ was covered in four separate articles, one of which predicted similar levels of chaos when the GCSE ‘results’, based on the same algorithm are released this coming week.   It is anticipated that up to 2 million results are likely to be downgraded, with the examining bodies already swamped by appeals against the A-level outcomes.  As one commentator put it in relation to the A-levels: ‘Unless Gavin Williamson [the Secretary of State for Education] can set up an appeals procedure that resolves the worst cases within days, he will destroy any illusions that his government could run a whelk stall.’

One article on the migrants who have been crossing the English Channel in small boats in their tens and twenties during the calm weather was written by May Bulman, and focuses on our bombastic Prime Minister’s assertion that “this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”  Bulman draws on legal opinion in pointing out that there isn’t any legal obligation on asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and that they aren’t, in fact, committing any unlawful act in crossing the channel in small boats to seek asylum.  She argues that making the crossing is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘stupid’ if they are seeking asylum and choosing a country in which they would be joining known communities, and there are no alternative routes to do so.  Bulman quotes Frances Timberlake, coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre in Calais and Dunkirk, in this regard: ‘I would use stupid to describe most of the policies [in this regard] the UK has proposed so far, which have totally failed.’

The anti-migrant rhetoric is obviously intended to pander to the xenophobic right wing of the Tory party and the populace as a whole.  Any one of the other three debacles – the mishandling of the response to Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS, the A-levels disaster, and the quarantine issue – should, one might have thought, be enough to sink any government without trace in the opinion polls.   Future historians, even those sceptical about the mental health of those of us who have been self-isolating for five months, seem likely to agree.  But, while Johnson’s own credit rating is falling, the polls suggest that responses to his government as a whole seem to remain astonishingly little affected.  So anyone up for investing in a government-run whelk stall? 

From John in Brighton: DNA

28 July

Potentially an existential issue – but not the double helix and its crucial role to life but rather the future of the restaurant industry. Within a fortnight of the hospitality services resuming, albeit with reduced numbers and other restrictions, restaurant hosts up and down the land bemoan those who book and then don’t materialise at the appointed time. I suspect this is not a new issue but more sharply focussed in these straitened and challenging times. The most outspoken was Tom Kerridge who had 27 no shows at his bar and grill restaurant on a single Saturday night. He emphasised that such selfishness could be the tipping point for the industry which is “already on the verge of collapse”.

Welcome to our world Tom. DNA’s, Did Not Attend, have been a perennial problem in the NHS for as long as I can remember. An outpatient clinic appointment is booked for a certain date and time but the patient is conspicuous only by their absence. Figures vary from place to place and between specialities but on average 8% of appointments (just under 8 million in 2017-8) are not honoured. With each missed appointment typically costing approximately £120 that represents around £1 billion to be coughed up. Not to be sneezed at (even with a mask on). Speaking on Question Time exactly five years ago Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed a personal preference for charging patients for missed appointments. The complexity of administering this and, I suspect, political unpopularity led by the other Jeremy meant it went no further. At the same sitting he also denounced patients who simply failed to take their prescribed medications which is another chronic wastage – so be grateful Tom, at least people swallow your food. The year after Hunt’s rant the body termed NHS Improvement was set up and in a report on “Reducing DNA’s” cited clerical errors and patients forgetting as the commonest reasons amongst several. To counteract these factors many clinics asked patients to ring in and book an appointment personally and then followed later with a reminder text a day or two before the consultation….but sadly not a panacea and still appointments go to waste.

Another ploy in the NHS is to book one or two extra patients in expectation of the absentees – bad news if it’s neither raining nor the World Cup and everyone turns up. But that’s less practical in the restaurant trade and especially with enforced social distancing. And the NHS is not a business whereas a restaurant’s bottom line and staff livelihoods depend on maintaining income. The current white hope for NHS appointments is to give patients the option of booking and changing appointments online. If it works in hospitals then perhaps it could be an option in hospitality as well. But until then a more immediate potential solution is to ask for a deposit at booking with a full refund should cancellation occur at least forty eight hours prior to the meal. To no show with impunity is ignorant and rude – maybe a forfeit would concentrate the mind. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprising, is that psychologists have demonstrated that people value things more if they have had to pay towards them. The only difficulty I can envisage is the client taken genuinely ill on the day of the booking.
At the end of the day surely a key factor is that both action and inaction have consequences and we all have a personal responsibility for “doing the right thing” as the Tory mantra so often tells us. The NHS may be free at the point of delivery but that doesn’t mean that financial considerations are irrelevant and we all need to use the service responsibly and judiciously. Equally the patrons of restaurants have a duty to respect those providing them with a service and whose livelihoods depend on it.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday to the NHS

July 4th

Happy Birthday to the NHS on its 72nd birthday.   As everyone in UK who has made it to the Biblical cut-off age of three score years and ten knows only too well by now, 72 is a dangerous age in the Covid-19 era.   In this strange new world, people attain instant vulnerability on the day they turn 70.  In that respect people are actually rather luckier than the NHS, which becomes instantly vulnerable every time a Conservative government comes to power.  Right now, after a decade of Tory misrule, the NHS is more vulnerable than it has ever been, as the present pandemic has made all too obvious. 

So Boris, in his kindly way, has given the NHS an unforgettable birthday present, gift-wrapped, virtually if not literally, in the blue light that will bathe key buildings around the country in its honour this evening, and presented to the NHS to echoes of the applause that rang out around the country on Thursday evenings not so long ago. Boris’s present is to honour the NHS’s birthday by declaring it ‘Independence Day’ and encouraging us all to get out to celebrate it in the pubs which were opened in its honour today for the first time in three months.   Boris has suggested that we might want to ‘act responsibly’ in doing so, and has set the example when it comes to acting responsibly by boasting about going around shaking the hands of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, and regarding it as entirely reasonable for his chief advisor to go for thirty mile drives to test his eyesight.

So the NHS will be partying tonight to celebrate its birthday, with extra staff invited to come in to join the party.  The Independent reports that ‘all NHS trusts have been warned to expect levels of attendance usually seen during new year celebrations, and have been asked to prepare their A&E departments and free up bed capacity in their hospitals to manage the increase.’  A&E staff must be really bored by now with trying to save the lives of Covid-19 patients, so they are bound to welcome an influx of drunk and injured people, many with alcohol poisoning, instead.  Some of the drunks will be violent and abusive instead of singing Happy Birthday, as they always are, but that will give the police who always have to hang around A&E departments a good reason not to get themselves injured trying to break up the celebratory riots out in the streets.   Boris could, of course, have scheduled the opening of the pubs for a more boring mid-week evening, but that would have limited the opportunities for his compulsively grandiloquent rhetoric and for the close association of post-Brexit England’s ‘Independence Day’ with the USA’s Independence Day, and he would thereby have lost an opportunity to ally himself with his insane counterpart in the USA.

Dealing with drunks who might try to tear off their face masks will obviously heighten the vulnerability of NHS staff, so many of whom have died unnecessarily from Covid-19 already, but the vulnerability of the NHS goes far deeper than the immediate safety of its current staff.   Tory Party ideology fetishises the private sector and abjures large national organisations: privatisation offers more opportunity for private profit, profiteering, graft and corruption.   Adherents of the ideology maintain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that it leads to greater efficiency and promotes productivity.  One only has to look at our railways and the UK probation service to see the absurdity of that idea.   The NHS was progressively, and I suspect deliberately, starved of the funds it needed to maintain the quality of its service for a steadily ageing population through the years of austerity, as seen, to take just one example, from the woeful shortage of PPE equipment and ventilators when a long-predicted virus struck.  The drying up of adequate funding enabled bits of the NHS to be carved off and handed to the private sector, as will have been intended. 

The government’s ideological mind-set blinded it to the need to look to local authorities and GPs in establishing an efficient track and trace system rather than relying on privatised central laboratories, with the result that England’s failure, even now on ‘Independence Day’, to have an efficient system in place has made us the subject variously of international pity and scorn.   But, in spite of all this, this government has shown itself to be incapable of learning from its manifest mistakes.  They are still careering towards a no-deal Brexit whose symbolic success depends to their blinkered minds on a trade-deal with the USA.  This government knows, and doesn’t care, that what the USA wants most out of a trade deal with the UK is for us to be carving nicely chlorinated roast chicken on our Sunday dinner tables, and for our government to reciprocate by carving our NHS up for them and handing the potentially profitable parts to Donald Trump on a plate.   Happy Birthday, NHS, I hope it won’t be your last.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Loneliness and Life Satisfaction

June 30. We are living through a time of drama.  Every week brings a new crisis, reported or anticipated.

History will record a belated response in the early days leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities, critical shortcomings in PPE, scandalous death-rates in care homes and amongst the BAME population, widespread failings in introducing test and trace procedures, the complete failure of the NHS testing app.  Today we have the return of lockdown in Leicester and later this week there is the predicted disaster of choosing a summer Saturday night to open all the pubs in England for the first time in three months.  And so it will continue in the face of a still unknowable virus and a government of still uncharted incompetence. 

And yet, if attention is paid to how people are feeling about the crisis, a very different picture emerges.  In my entry for May 27 I drew attention to the social surveys which have been launched at great speed in response to the coronavirus.  One of the larger enterprises, the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study, has now published four further weekly reports, displaying consistent data over three full months of the pandemic.*  The questions in the survey cover basic attitudes and emotions in the lockdown.  Each topic has its own trajectory since the last week of March, and its own variations by age, income, and living conditions.  But standing back from the detail, what is most striking is the absence of change over the period.

Graph after graph proceeds in an even line as each week passes, sometimes on a slightly upward trajectory, sometimes downward.  What is missing almost completely is the kind of volatility that we read in the headlines each day.  ‘Loneliness’ (see above) has been almost completely flat since the last week of March, unaffected by the recent marginal lifting of the lockdown.  ‘Life satisfaction’ has gradually risen from 5 to 6 on a 10-point scale [it should be 7.7].  ‘Happiness’ [you may not know what that is, but here it is measured by the Office for National Statistics wellbeing scale], has been at or just under 6, again on a 10-point scale, with very small fluctuations.  Levels of depression and anxiety have been higher than in pre-Covid times but have gradually declined through the Spring and early Summer.  Confidence in the English government showed one of the largest short-term changes, falling from 4.5 to 3.5 on a 7-point scale at the beginning of May, but has since levelled out. Notwithstanding this decline, willingness to comply with guidelines has barely altered, slipping over three months from almost 100% to just over 90.  The sharpest fall has been in worries about food security, which began at around 60% of the population and are now only a little above zero. 

The scale of the sample, which involves 90,000 respondents, inevitably has a dampening effect on variability.  Individuals who have lost their jobs, or have been ill, or have suffered serious bereavement, will scarcely report so uneventful an experience.  Nonetheless the absence of sudden change across the population in such fundamental areas as depression or life-satisfaction is a necessary corrective to the melodrama played out on the front-pages of the newspapers.

When the scores are broken down by issues such as income or living conditions, there are generally only minor differences.  In most categories the young are suffering more than the old, the poor more than the rich, but often the differences are small.  Much the largest variable on almost all issues is a prior diagnosis of mental ill-health.  Again the scores show little change over the period, but there are significant gaps between the graphs of the well and the unwell. On key issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and happiness, the mentally fit are between half and three times better off than those who entered this crisis already in trouble. 

According to a report by the charity Mind this morning, almost two thirds of those with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse during the lockdown.**  When we consider where the effort should be placed in alleviating the consequence of the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of the population at the outset of the crisis will require particular attention.

* Covid-19 Social Study Results Releases 1-14

** https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/30/uks-mental-health-has-deteriorated-during-lockdown-says-mind?CMP=share_btn_link

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

From David Maughan Brown in York: In praise of the NHS

June 20th

Having rigorously shielded myself from the Covid-19 virus for three months,  adhering scrupulously to all government regulations about self-isolating and social distancing – give or take the ambiguity about whether or not it counted as two forms of exercise to ride a bike to the allotment – and having only darkened one set of doors, those of the cycle shop, other than our own in all that time, I found myself venturing not once but twice this week into the York Hospital, the one place in North Yorkshire I was most likely to encounter the virus.

The risk analysis didn’t involve the amount of time the above introduction might seem to imply.  Not a whole lot more, in fact, than it took to make the choice some ten years ago when my brilliant surgeon at the same hospital spelt out my choice prior to an entirely unrelated emergency operation:  “Look at it this way, if I don’t operate, you have an 85% chance of not being alive in 24 hours; if I do operate, your chances of not being alive tomorrow evening go down to about 15%.”  Not a difficult choice, and not a fragment of dialogue one is likely to forget in a hurry.   The occasion for my visits this time was my body’s decision last weekend to take it upon itself, fortunately very fleetingly, to let my brain know that it didn’t think the latter was paying it nearly enough attention, getting its message across by way of a first unwritten warning.  Direct and to the point like the surgeon, it momentarily cut off my brain’s blood supply, in a way vaguely reminiscent of the way our housemaster used to flick the dormitory light-switch off and on again to alert us to the fact that we needed to put books away before the lights went out.   I blame various combinations of Boris and Priti with the odd, very odd, Dominic or two thrown in for good measure.  Considering a visit to A&E a risk too far, and phoning 111 a waste of time, I followed the (wise) advice I would have been given 50 years ago: I took an aspirin and went to bed, deciding to phone the GPs’ surgery in the morning.

Over the course of a total of around six hours across two days, with abundant directions from random, but invariably helpful, hospital staff, I managed to find my way variously to the stroke clinic, the phlebotomy department, the X-ray department for ultra-sound and the diagnostic imaging department – all widely distributed along numerous intersecting corridors.  As I made my way around the hospital, dutifully wearing the face-covering my wife, Sue, had manufactured for me, I made a point of looking at the names on the doors I went past and listening to the accents of the people I spoke to and overheard:  German names, French names, South Asian names, Chinese names, and a variety of other East European names whose origins I couldn’t identify as well as British names. Unsurprisingly, I heard a similar range of accents from the nurses, cleaners and porters I encountered on my way.  

There was a three-hour interval on Friday afternoon after my 40 minutes in the MRI/MRA sardine scan before the specialist could see me, while she waited for the images to come through to the stroke clinic and the vascular surgeon to come out of an operating theatre to peruse them.  My iPhone was almost out of battery and I hadn’t taken anything to read, so I had three hours to sit in the waiting room, focus on what was going on around me and contemplate existence. It didn’t take much contemplation to arrive at the conclusion, yet again, that we are unbelievably lucky in UK to have the NHS, whose 72nd anniversary comes around in a fortnight.  Wherever I went in the hospital I encountered warmth and friendliness, and a high degree of competence and efficiency.   I had absolute confidence in the skill of the doctors I encountered, which is by no means automatically the case, and, having paid R11,000 for an MRI in Cape Town in November, it didn’t pass unnoticed that nobody asked me for a penny.   I was relieved at the end of the day when the conclusion was reached that the hiccup in the blood supply could be dealt with medicinally rather than needing surgery, but after my previous experience I would have had perfect confidence that, whoever at that hospital was wielding it, the scalpel would be in good hands.

Although the waiting room of a stroke clinic would no doubt be as good a place as any, and better than most, to have one, as I sat there I had very deliberately to avoid thinking too much about our current government in relation to the NHS.  For all their deceitful claims to the contrary, many of them would like nothing more than to see the NHS broken up and privatised so that they could profit from shareholdings and use our health services as a bargaining chip in their attempt to get their yearned-for trade deal with the US.  Many of them would also like nothing better than to see that rainbow collection of foreign names on the doors, to borrow Desmond Tutu’s analogy, replaced with Smiths and Browns, and all the intriguing and varied accents replaced with standard English ones.   Anyone who ever needed proof of this government’s utterly cynical attitude towards the NHS has only to look at its criminally long-delayed, and still largely useless, Test and Trace programme.  Having painstaking avoided utilising the NHS’s network of GP practices and our local Councils’ Public Health departments, which stood a good chance of success, in favour of its perennial, ideologically driven, commitment to shrink-the-State outsourcing, our government has the bare-faced cheek to duck its responsibility by labelling its dog’s breakfast of a programme with the NHS badge: ‘NHS Test and Trace.’  But best not spend too much time getting enraged by that, lest the senior housemaster in the sky switch the lights off without further warning. 

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.