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Hong Kong migrants: where will they live?

3 July, 2020 - 23:39
Hong Kong protests, 2019

In reaction to the new security law the Chinese government have imposed on Hong Kong, a former British territory returned in 1997 which in theory enjoys autonomy from China under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, the government has promised to provide a path to citizenship for the British Overseas nationals living in the territory. This would consist of leave to remain for five years, at the end of which one could apply for citizenship. There are about 350,000 such nationals in Hong Kong who are entitled to enter the UK for six months without a visa but may not remain here longer; according to the BBC, about 2.6 million others are eligible for the status; this would amount to nearly half Hong Kong’s total population of 7.5 million. (Wikipedia, quoting British Foreign Office figures from 2014, estimate that 3.4 million British Overseas Nationals live in Hong Kong.)

Under the government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependants will be given right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek citizenship.

Updating MPs on the details, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no limit on numbers or quotas and the application process would be simple.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

Raab conceded, however, that there was little the British government could do to “cohesively force” the Chinese government to allow British passport holders to leave the country. Labour supported the government’s action, but insisted that there be no discrimination on grounds of income or anything else; Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also said that the UK had a responsibility to those unable to leave or who wished to remain in Hong Kong. I find this to be a hugely irresponsible stance on both sides. Under pressure to free itself from the perception of antisemitism, Labour fears being accused of racism again here as well as having turned 180 degrees to become an anti-immigrant party. But this scheme must be resisted, not least for the sake of existing ethnic minority populations here.

First, although I suspect that the government are gambling on most eligible people in Hong Kong not taking up the offer and that many may choose to move to Australia, the US, Canada or elsewhere (which they will be able to if they are rich), let’s be clear that 2.9 million is a huge number of people who will all need to live somewhere. This is the entire population of the West Midlands metropolitan county (which includes Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall and the Black Country). If only a quarter or a third of the eligible people take up the offer, we will still need a whole new large city — the size of Leeds or Sheffield, say — to accommodate them. Despite the enthusiasm of the political classes and doubtless the jingoistic right-wing media, there is no guarantee that the sudden influx of this many people will meet the acceptance of the general population; it is as if they have said “of course they will” on our behalf. The last time we had such an influx, in the 2000s, it set the ball rolling on Brexit and this was also the result of a political miscalculation: that a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands, of good white workers would not cause any social disruption or resentment.

It’s possible that the government assumes that the new arrivals will take places vacated by departing European Union nationals. This is a big assumption; many of those EU nationals have families, lives, jobs and businesses here and will not be able to just up and leave. Have the government given any thought to what skills the migrants will bring and what the people departing to the EU will take with them? Hong Kong is an almost entirely urban territory. How many people from Hong Kong go to China for labouring work on farms? Another trick up the government’s sleeve might be to do with the position of the existing ‘immigrant’, i.e. non-white, population: we have already seen people who were nationalised being stripped of their nationality and sent ‘home’, as well as dual nationals (or presumed dual nationals, as many in fact have no other citizenship) being stripped after being deemed undesirable (admittedly sometimes for proven criminal acts, but sometimes not), so a stepping up of this policy might be the government’s intention.

Finally, as the government admits that this may result in British Overseas Nationals being barred from leaving Hong Kong or at least China, the possibility arises that some of them may join overland refugee or migrant smuggling routes across Asia and Europe. This is obviously a hazardous journey and opens them up to exploitation. They may also try to reach Vietnam by boat in the hope of being able to travel to the UK from there.

I have nothing against the UK accepting people genuinely in danger from Hong Kong or anywhere else as refugees. That’s our duty. We simply cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, from Hong Kong just because there is a new security law any more than we can accommodate any other whole, large population when there is a downturn in their political situation. We knew we were handing Hong Kong back to a communist-run one-party state for decades before it happened (China was not a democracy when we acquired Hong Kong, though neither was the UK then as women and the working class did not have the vote). We knew that any agreement we made to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy would be unenforceable once we left and that the danger would grow the longer we had been away. As a former imperial power that is now a mere medium-sized country, we simply cannot save the world. We have no territory or base anywhere near Hong Kong anymore.

It would, of course, be advantageous to the Tory party to have a large number of new citizens indebted to them for their citizenship who regard socialism as a dirty word given what it means in China. As Hong Kong has one of the most liberal economies (in the sense of free markets and low tax), this would strengthen the hand of those who seek to privatise or do away with public services and those whose vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that of a “rainy Dubai” though with fewer Muslims. As Hong Kong has a substantial finance industry and the second-highest number of billionaires in the world, they will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who needs to sell a house though not necessarily by those looking to buy one (though not all Hong Kongers are rich and there are significant inequalities). Given the current housing situation and recent policy, the likely result is that London and maybe other major cities become even more out of reach to ordinary people, let alone poor people.

If we were staying in the EU, of course, we could just give them British passports which would allow them to settle anywhere in Europe they liked. If we were, however, the matter of EU nationals leaving would not arise. As it is, anyone newly acquiring British nationality can only settle here. The government talks about its responsibility to overseas nationals in Hong Kong, but they have no sense of responsibility towards their own people in their own country, as quite amply demonstrated during the recent crisis. This policy is intended, I believe, not to enrich but to displace. Short of building a whole new city, displacement would be the only way to accommodate this many people.

Image source: Studio Incendo, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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How do we solve a problem like the police?

30 June, 2020 - 19:12
A police recruitment ad from the Metropolitan Police which shows two officers, one a white woman and the other Asian and probably male. The text reads "Do the job where you look out for each other. Do something real. Become a police officer."Police recruitment ad in London. According to Nazir Afzal, a former British Crown prosecutor, police officers frequently refuse to testify against other officers in the event of a civilian death, in contrast to civilian behaviour.

Since the killing by four Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd, a former work colleague of one of them, there have been worldwide street protests and a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement that grew up after the murder by a Neighbourhood Watch vigilante of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy. This has led to a revived interest in the ideas of abolishing or defunding the police, which seems to mean different things depending on who is advocating it; to some it simply means abolishing it altogether, while to others it means drastically reducing the departments’ funding and using the balance to improve funding for other public services which might help to reduce crime, especially crime that stems from poverty. Others regard the idea as dangerous naivety, much as with the idea of prison abolition (often in favour of restorative justice, even for serious crimes such as rape); a major objection is that abolishing police departments in favour of “community solutions” would result in a proliferation of vigilantes a lot like George Zimmerman.

Some white Americans seem to have reacted with fury to any suggestion that the police or policing in general are to blame for the widespread harassment and violence against minorities and African-Americans in particular. A while ago I followed a lady in South Carolina for updates on the progress of her disabled (as of 2018) daughter; in recent weeks, the feed has changed to constant cop-worship and demands that anyone who disagrees should just unfollow or unfriend her, which I did. More generally I have seen a sneering response that characterises the supporters of defunding as white college-educated extremists such as anarchists with their heads in the clouds, and ignores that much of the pressure comes from the minorities who endure the persistent harassment and who learn to fear the police from a very young age because, especially in the United States, a simple interaction can lead to summary death.

Most of the debate has been around the issue of ‘defunding’ and what it means than about abolishing it. In the UK, the police (as well as the fire service and other public services) have had substantial funding cuts over the years, especially since the Tories came back into power in 2010, and have had to sell police stations; in many places, the only physical police presence is a small office for the community policing team which cannot be used to report a crime (or seek refuge). In the USA, in many localities (since police departments are specific to the city or county) police funding has increased astronomically and in some places gets more funding than a whole host of other public services combined. Police have acquired military hardware such as armoured vehicles which really have no place in any civilian situation. They escort mental health patients to hospital and between hospitals, often handcuffing and shackling them like felons (though this has been reduced as a result of public campaigning). They go armed to wellness checks for people suffering mental health crisis, in some cases leading to the unwell person being shot dead. They are present in schools, as a result of which children have been arrested, handcuffed, and received criminal records for mere classroom disruption.

The contemptuous responses include this:

Facebook post containing an image which reads "Send in the SWAT -- social workers and therapists -- because violent criminals just need to be held close, not held accountable." There is a heart in the middle of the A in SWAT. Above the image is the caption that simply reads "Yep" and below, the page name Cop Humor which posted this.

There is another thread about the ‘defund’ slogan being misleading and alienating here. Yet I cannot think of a snappier slogan. It doesn’t mean cut their funding altogether; it means only funding them up to what is necessary rather than so as to acquire unnecessarily grandiose hardware and to stick their fingers into every pie, and reallocate funding to other services, some of which can respond to things like mental health crises appropriately and some of which may help alleviate poverty and other causes of crime. The meme on the left misses the point; it’s not violent criminals that need therapy or a hug, but people in crisis who may currently be sent a cop with a gun rather than a mental health professional who knows how to calm them down. I suspect that the quibbles about the phrase are sometimes being made in bad faith by people who know exactly what it means.

I do agree that not only defunding is required but stiff new laws to make sure that police behave professionally, are trained to de-escalate situations and not to escalate them (especially trivial ones such as routine traffic stops), do not use undue force, do not racially discriminate (and are trained not to make assumptions) and that police officers who use excessive force, who terrorise innocent members of the public let alone kill them, are dismissed rather than protected. Another important step to eliminating harassment is to abolish the laws which provide pretexts for it, such as anti-jaywalking laws (we do not have these here) and licence plate renewal (again, we do without them here; police can check from a database if a number plate does not match the vehicle it’s on and if duty has been paid to keep it on the road). Yet I am sure many people will think I am hopelessly naive for even imagining that the police will actually implement any of these things, or that legislatures will force them to in most jurisdictions.

The people laughing at the suggestion seem to be White or at least not Black. The police, while some complain that they are ineffective or aggressive, are not a serious menace to them. They are not the ones who have had to sit their sons down for a talk about what to do when confronted by police who will be armed and probably aggressive and prejudiced. They are not the ones who fear calling the emergency services in the event of a crisis in case the person having the crisis is shot dead, possibly because the officer in attendance decides he “doesn’t have time for this” (the officer responsible in this case was acquitted in a judge-only trial). They don’t put forward any ideas for how to change these situations, and police themselves have the support of the white majority, of the legal system, and of each other and their unions. They are notorious for lying in court to support each other or refusing to testify against each other, even when a civilian has been killed in their custody. They resist reform and demonstrate contempt on the occasions when elected politicians propose reform (such as in France recently, where the use of choke-holds was recently banned and then allowed again after police protests). Someone had better think up some solutions pretty soon as we cannot expect people to tolerate this situation of lawless, violent, racist police terrorising it with total impunity forever.

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Nothing brave about Starmer’s cave-in

25 June, 2020 - 22:47
Picture of Maxine Peake, a middle-aged white woman with curly fair hair, wearing a yellow and white striped T-shirt with a sticker saying "My union, our strength; proud to be a member of Equity" (the actors' union). There is a crowd of people behind her.Maxine Peake

Today Keir Starmer, the Labour leader elected earlier this year, caved in to pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews to sack the shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who had shared an interview with the British actress Maxine Peake in which the actress repeated a well-known claim that the police behaviour which led to the death of George Floyd last month was influenced by seminars delivered by the Israeli police or ‘defence’ forces. The decision was widely praised by both the party’s right wing and by right-wing figures in the media generally as a sign that Starmer is ‘finally’ taking steps to “rid the party of antisemitism”. To others, it is a thin pretext for getting rid of someone who has sided with teachers’ unions in urging a delay in reopening schools for the sake of the health of teachers, pupils and the families of both. I have seen many tweets this afternoon from people who said they intended to resign from the Labour Party and not all of them are committed Corbynites.

The interview, which she discusses a number of her recent film roles and her politics, includes a widely-circulated claim that the police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck, which was what killed George Floyd, had been “learned from seminars with Israeli secret services”, which the latter denied. Her defenders have pointed to a blog post on Amnesty International’s website from 2016, in which it is claimed that Baltimore’s police had received training on “crowd control, use of force and surveillance” from Israeli police, and a number of other cities had received Israeli training. It does not, however, say that this particular tactic was learned from those seminars. Jose Lopez, a former police chief in Durham, North Carolina, who received training from Israel, said his training was not about ‘militarization’ but rather, “it was about leadership, it was learning about terrorism and then learning about how to interact with people who are involved in mass casualty situations and how to manage mass casualty situations”.

I saw a thread on Twitter which claimed that the allegation about Israeli influence on US police forces was antisemitic because it was based on a ‘trope’ that Jews always had to be behind any disaster or other. Like a lot of the “antisemitic trope” claims that were thrown at various people in the Labour party every week or so under Corbyn’s leadership, this strikes me as straining the definition through the needle’s eye but frankly, I believe that people drew the connection, or made the assumption that if American police forces were getting training from Israel it had to be at the detriment of their human rights record not because Israelis are Jewish but because Israel’s human rights record was already atrocious and their contempt for Palestinians’ general rights, their rights to go about their business without harassment and violence, their rights to be unmolested in their homes, their rights to their own land’s water and so on are well-documented and not even concealed. This is why, if someone is wrong about Israel on such a matter, it does not constitute evidence that they are antisemitic. The same goes for an incident in which a Corbyn supporter shared a video which she claimed showed Israeli police or soldiers abusing young people somewhere in Palestine; in fact, it was shot in Guatemala. However, when similar abuses are amply documented, to believe someone who tells you this is from Palestine and share it as such when you do not speak Spanish, Arabic or Hebrew is not antisemitic. One does a serial violent criminal no great injustice by attributing to him one particular crime that he did not commit, when he committed many like it.

Starmer’s action is in my opinion cowardly — typical, in fact, of the New Labour right demonstrated again and again while they were in power: they would do the bidding of the powerful (the commercial media, in particular) by sticking the boot into the powerless. The suggestion that Jews or Jewish interests or lobby groups have undue influence over the media is commonly dismissed as an antisemitic trope, yet Starmer clearly thinks they do otherwise he would not have sacked one of his shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with a well-respected cultural figure. Despite all the flattery, it does not give the impression that Starmer is an independent leader, but rather that he gives in to pressure very easily and is easily cowed when confronted with a display of power.

Image source: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence v4.0, via Wikimedia

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Cruelty over shielding

1 June, 2020 - 23:46
Picture of two young white women with a young white girl standing in front of them. The image is framed by an orange and red pattern with the BBC logo at top left.Isolation Diary: Kate Monaghan, Holly Cocker
and daughter Scout

At the weekend the government announced that the rules for people who are under medical advice to stay indoors to avoid catching Covid-19 at all costs as they are likely to become severely ill if they contract it, mostly those with immune systems compromised by their condition or medication they are taking for it, or with impaired lung function (e.g. asthma), were changing as of today (Monday): they were to be allowed outside once a day, either with someone they live with, or with someone else if they live alone. At the same time, it was reported that a large number of people had been removed from the shielding list with the support withdrawn. I follow a lot of disabled people on Twitter and many of them reacted with incredulity to the announcement. The BBC interviewed some people who had been shielding and they said that they intended to remain inside for a few weeks to make sure that the infection rate continued to drop, as the government was claiming.

I’ve been listening to the BBC Ouch podcast for some time and during the lockdown period it has featured contributions from Kate Monaghan and her partner, Holly, who has been shielding because she is on anti-rejection drugs following a kidney transplant. At one point the couple go for a walk in a rural area so as to get out of the house with minimal risk; being shut in the flat with minimal exercise has also had effects on Kate’s physical health as well as the stresses of being shut in together with a small child. I asked another disabled friend whether she would be “taking advantage” of the new rules and she told me that this was the most she would do — go to an isolated area such as a secluded woodland once in a while so as not to bump into anyone — but would not be getting back to normal for some time. In fact, this is what many people who are supposed to be staying indoors all the time have been doing already: the advice to stay indoors was always just advice, while the lockdown (requiring people to stay at home other than when working, exercising etc. and abstain from social visits and travelling for pleasure) was a legal requirement. Both government and media have been conflating these two things routinely — this may well partly explain the continual breaches of the regulations by members of the public throughout the initial lockdown — and we see the same in the coverage of the new ‘rules’ for shielders.

Personally, I find it cruel for the government to make this sort of announcement at a time when trust in anything they say is at such a low as a result of the Cummings affair, when in many places people have abandoned all pretence of social distancing (see the pictures of crowded beaches this past weekend, which were not compressed pictures unlike the ones of ‘covidiots’ in parks circulated in March) and public spaces are increasingly crowded, and when in many places admission rates appear to be going up again, likely to be the result of infections which occurred during the VE-Day festivities in early May. It will get increasingly difficult to find those places that are free of crowds. In Spain, after they first released their lockdown (a real lockdown, where factories were closed and nobody was allowed out other than for grocery shopping and medical necessities for weeks and children only for the latter), an hour or so was set aside each day for the medically vulnerable to exercise and get fresh air and others had to be off the streets. Here, it could be possible to set aside certain parks for that purpose, but we see no sign of that happening and people will have to get to the parks somehow. It is particularly cruel to children who are shielding who may not fully understand the necessity and who see their friends playing outside and hear that adults in their position can go outside, but whose parents say they can’t.

It is widely understood that government announcements about easing lockdown restrictions bear no relation to what scientists say about infection rates: they are mostly concerned with getting the economy working again, hence the reopening of schools this week and the talk of reopening a lot of retail businesses this month. They are only interested in money and have a pathological aversion to public spending on pretty much anything except war. Daily newspapers have come to be full of propaganda, joyfully heralding the latest relaxation of restrictions on economic life while ignoring scientific evidence that it is not safe. I am hearing rumours that both companies and the NHS are preparing for another spike in infections next month. Some aspects of lockdown do need to be reconsidered: the elderly people deprived of family visits or even social contact with other residents in their homes by stringent internal lockdowns and whose health is suffering greatly (many of them have dementia, which has been exacerbated) as well as the mental health patients who have lost all visits and trips out as well as seeing plans for their moving to more open environments put on hold. As for shielders, some have been going out already and they could not all have been expected to have the patience to never leave home, let alone never go outside, for an indefinite period. However, this is really the wrong time to make an announcement that they can do this now when they could not before. It is not safer than it was a week or two ago; that much is obvious.

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Not our brothers’ keepers

25 May, 2020 - 23:37
Picture of Ellie Williams, a young white women with injuries to her face and right eyelid, lying on a bed with her head resting on a pillow with a butterfly motif.Ellie Williams

Last week a young woman named Ellie Williams (right) from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, posted a long message on Facebook describing having been kidnapped by a group of local Pakistani men and taken to an address where she was beaten and raped as a punishment for not attending ‘parties’ in town due to Coronavirus. The post, accompanied by pictures of injuries she had suffered in the incident, was widely shared on social media and commented on by feminists and left-wing commentators among others. Last weekend it transpired that Williams had been charged with making multiple false accusations of rape against several local men between 2017 and 2019 and following the Facebook post had been remanded in custody for breaching bail conditions (her family say that this was in fact a curfew put in place for her own protection which she broke under duress from the gang).

There have been public protests in Barrow in support of Ms Williams, including an assemblage of cars in a retail park with horns blaring. Today, at one such gathering where many people were out of their cars and gathering close together (no social distancing), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) showed up in his car and was cheered by many of those in attendance before going off in a convoy to Ulverston (see the video attached to this tweet). The claims have led to local Asian restaurants being attacked and forced to close, though the owners condemned and denied any involvement in abuse and said they supported “justice for Ellie”. The Williams family have said they want nothing to do with him and have gained the support of women’s charities. Cumbria Police have issued a video statement claiming that they conducted a year-long peer-reviewed investigation (‘peers’ presumably meaning other police forces; the limitations of that have been demonstrated in police complaints investigations over the decades) that found no evidence of organised abuse of the type described in the Barrow area.

I want to address some of the social media commentary on this alleged incident, as I first found out about it on a Twitter feed run by a particularly obnoxious Leeds-based white feminist:

I want to know what our local institutions, the Council, the Police, are doing, to disrupt the Pakistani/Muslim #GroomingGang network across the North of England. Where are the local Mosques speaking out about this? … As ever, “not all Pakistani/Muslim men are like that”, but there’s a pattern here, and recognising this pattern means we’re forced to act, to protect girls/young women. … I know that the ‘woke’ left thinks all discussion of this is racist. I think that racists will use anything to promote racism. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can afford to refuse to face the issues with integration, the role of women/girls in the way Islam is promoted.

This issue of “what are the mosques doing?” was raised every time the matter of grooming by groups of Asian men was in the news. It’s assumed that everyone from a Muslim background is religious and that they will automatically listen to what an imam says, and that if Muslims are doing it, they all must know about it — perhaps because it’s assumed, as it often is of minorities, that we all know each other. In actual fact, the criminal activity in some of the towns took place well away from the part of town where most Muslims live, so it is quite possible that most local Muslims knew nothing. Muslims do not have the ability to police members of our own community; there is one law and one police force for everybody in any given county or metropolitan area. An imam can give a sermon but it’s the listener’s choice as to whether he takes any notice; every Muslim knows that everything the grooming gangs are doing is against Islam for numerous reasons and none of the excuses hold any water. And the reason Muslims often live separately from others is because of racism; even when Muslims move into previously mostly white middle-class areas of many northern towns, whites start to move out. (It is not only white feminists making these ridiculous claims about Muslim complicity or inaction; I have seen Muslims on Twitter saying similar things.)

I believed Ellie’s story when I first read it. I don’t know how she got the bruises and other injuries shown in the attached pictures if she is not telling the truth. While no doubt the explanation for them will be made clear during the forthcoming legal process, the police have offered no explanation so far. She is 19 now, which meant that she would have been 16 when she made some of the accusations she is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice for making. While false accusations of rape or sexual abuse or harassment have been a factor in previous hate crimes, the family do not appear to be racist and have rebuffed “Tommy Robinson”; comments under recent entries say that he “makes it his show”. However, other recent social media posts about this issue have tended towards violent racism, with one I saw saying that genocide is the answer. I have also seen tweets sharing the addresses of businesses whose owners are supposedly involved. There is a danger of a lot of well-meaning people who think they are not racist nevertheless making a lot of racist assumptions about Muslims based on ignorance and commonly-held but false views, and of people who would normally rail against victim blaming when it refers to rape or abuse victims doing exactly that when it concerns innocent Asian victims of mob violence; the fact is that this is a small group of criminals, we are not our brothers’ keepers in law and we have no power over them. It is up to the police to investigate and if Ellie’s supporters are to be believed, they have done a terrible job. The truth will be revealed in the coming months, however.

Image source: Ellie Williams, Facebook.

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Reflection on “Happy Valley”, series 1

16 May, 2020 - 17:18
Picture of a middle-aged white woman wearing a black police uniform and hat and police-issue high-visibility waistcoat, getting out of a police car on a street with shops along one side.Catherine Cawood

Last week, while looking for something to watch while doing a large stack of ironing during the lockdown, I stumbled upon the first series of the six-part BBC crime drama, Happy Valley. This drama, set in West Yorkshire, is about the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman’s daughter involving a rapist recently released from prison for drug offences; the central character is a policewoman whose daughter had been raped by this individual and had taken her own life after bearing the rapist’s child. I previously reviewed the second series of this, which sadly was not a patch on this series and contained a number of very unlikely scenarios, as I mentioned in my review back in 2016. The original series from 2015 was a brilliant bit of drama and it’s well worth a watch if you like good British drama. Rape is central to the plot, although there is no rape actually shown. The series is available on Netflix in the UK until 1st June.

The central character is Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire; pronounced Caywood), a police sergeant in her 40s who lives with her sister and the grandson who, because of the circumstances of his birth and his mother’s death, is shunned by everyone else in the family. The grandson has a lot of problems at school and Catherine is always getting called into school to be told about a new misdeed or other of her grandson. She has become aware of the rapist’s, Tommy Lee Royce’s, release from prison and during the series he makes repeated attempts to track down and then contact her grandson. We get the impression that she has made the decision to care for him as much out of duty and because he is all she has left of her daughter than because she loves him; his behaviour both at school and at home is exasperating for her although at one point in the series it becomes clear that part of it is triggered by being reminded that he does not have family that others have. As Royce’s presence impinges on their lives more and more, Catherine struggles to protect him from being either harmed or influenced by him, and this struggle dominates the last couple of episodes after the kidnapping is brought to an end.

The other central character is Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton), who works for an industrial refrigeration company owned by a friend of his late father’s. Kevin has a disabled wife and two children he has ambitions for: the elder has passed an entrance exam for a nearby private school but not attained a scholarship. He asks his boss, Nevison Gallagher, for a rise to accommodate these fees; Gallagher rebuffs him, saying that if he did that for him, he would have to do that for everyone. This triggers a grudge he has for Gallagher; he believes that “half that company should be [his]” and that Gallagher cheated his father out of a share in the business. It turns out that, while they were building up the company, his father took time out to study accountancy rather than continuing to work on building up the company, and when he finished, Gallagher merely offered him a job rather than continuing to treat him as a partner. Therefore, while on holiday, he approaches Ashley, the owner of the caravan site he knows is involved in drug dealing and other illegal activities and suggests kidnapping Gallagher’s daughter Ann to blackmail him for the money he believes Gallagher ‘owes’ him. However, Ashley offers him what he considers a risible sum of money because he could do the whole thing without him.

Gallagher has in the meanwhile discussed the matter with his family who persuade him he should fund Weatherill’s daughters’ school fees. He also decides to take a period of absence from the company and makes Weatherill his deputy for an extended period. At this point, Weatherill obviously regrets his approach to Ashley and frantically tries to back him out of the scheme, but Ashley has engaged Royce and a second ‘worker’, Lewis Whippey (Adam Long), to carry out the kidnapping. Weatherill approaches the police, but cannot explain the situation without giving away his role. The kidnapping goes ahead; Royce manipulates the situation so that he can be alone with Ann and at some point rapes her; as they are aware that the police may be following them, they move her twice, at one point killing a female police officer who had pulled them over and become suspicious. Ultimately Catherine finds Ann, though Royce comes back and assaults Catherine so badly it is Ann who pulls her out of the building.

Still of two white men, one in his 50s and the other in his 30s, wearing dark coloured jackets, looking into a bag which is on a kitchen table. A glass bowl containing bananas and other fruit is in front of them.Kevin and Ashley examine the money

There is clearly a moral to the story of Kevin Weatherill. He is obviously a frustrated man who has harboured a grudge for many years — perhaps his father had fostered this in him — and his reaction to Gallagher’s initial refusal was to look for ways to harm someone close to him. Once Gallagher had had a change of heart, he frantically looked for ways to undo the damage but could neither change the criminals’ minds nor tell the police without incriminating himself. He holds this grudge right to the end, blaming Gallagher’s treatment of him and his father for Ann being raped when Gallagher visits him in prison. One disappointing aspect of Kevin’s story is that it is revealed that he has been sexually assaulted in prison; a police officer remarked, “another inmate took a shine to him” before making a vulgar remark about the subject. In contrast to how carefully rape is dealt with elsewhere in the series (as in, implied rather than shown), this suggestion that prison rape is a comeuppance for Kevin’s actions is a sad use of an old trope. (Though it might explain why remorse was the furthest thing from his mind when Gallagher visited him.)

Happy Valley is set in the Calder Valley, an area west of Halifax in West Yorkshire; while the areas look gritty and urban despite being set among hills, it was actually entirely set in small towns and villages right on the edge of the West Yorkshire urban area. This brings to the public’s consciousness a part of the UK that perhaps not many people are aware of, an area with a lot of deprivation stemming from industrial decay but with a lot of natural beauty. It’s not a very diverse portrait of West Yorkshire, though; there is one non-white face in the whole series that I can remember and that was someone in the first episode, shouting about conspiracies as he is dragged away by the police. Perhaps that’s true of this part of the county, though. If there’s one criticism, it’s that they dragged out the story of Tommy Lee Royce’s pursual of his son after the kidnapping ends for two episodes when it really could have been squeezed into one; once Ann Gallagher is rescued in the fourth of six episodes, the plot switches to the ongoing Cawood family soap opera which is not as gripping as the kidnap story. It’s a great drama up until that point in episode 4, but it spends too much time tying up loose ends; some of this (the fate of Ashley, for example) could have been done in a few short sequences.

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Bread with few roses, as the government push us back to work

6 May, 2020 - 00:13
A front page from The Times, with the headline "State aid for workers to be cut by chancellor". A smaller piece is headlined, "Top government adviser quits after breaking lockdown with mistress". A strip under the Times masthead shows two women in jumpsuits, one blue and one red, with the headline "Alpha woman-wear (it's all about the jumpsuit)".The front page of this morning’s Times, announcing that the government will cut “state aid for workers” under the furlough scheme from 80% to 60%.

Yesterday a draft of the government’s guidance for “getting Britain back to work” was obtained by BuzzFeed: seven documents giving various advice for how companies might minimise the risk for staff coming back to work by ensuring the ability to keep their distance from each other, wash their hands and clean surfaces more, providing more parking or bike racks, adjusting seating arrangements and various other pretty obvious things. The TUC (Trades Union Council), understandably, criticised the guidance for making employers responsible for deciding what measures to take to ensure staff and public safety: “this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual – which will put their workforce at risk”.

In late March, I did a couple of weeks’ work at a Royal Mail depot in London. Most of the time I was driving a truck on my own, but I had to visit the transport office and then load the vehicles on the depot floor. At this particular depot, they installed a separate entrance and exit by utilising an existing fire door and repurposed a disabled toilet on the ground floor as a hand-washing station. (There are other disabled toilets in the building.) In the transport office, only one person was allowed in at a time and others were expected to wait outside. Driving duties are themselves all solo, but when loading, one cannot get away with interacting with other staff and frequently one has to shout to make oneself heard over the din of machinery. Few were wearing face-masks or other PPE and it certainly was not provided. It was not always possible to maintain the necessary distance.

The problem is: like public transport, workplaces are not designed for the necessities of the Covid-19 pandemic or any other. There is only so much space for parking; at some sites, parking has been used for other purposes. Many only have one door that is convenient for entrance and exit. Not all have the room for ensuring one-way pedestrian flow and if they do, it would mean long detours round buildings rather than direct journeys. Many do not have changing or washing facilities so changing into uniforms on site and washing them on site would just not be possible. Some do not have adequate toilet facilities already, or share facilities with neighbours in the same building. Many are good ideas, such as doing away with “hot desks” that can be used by anyone (in some offices, all desks are ‘hot’), but mean nothing if left up to employers to decide.

Many of the suggestions should have been made at the start of the lockdown for companies that would continue to trade through it; many are already being done. It suggests “Defining the number of customers that can follow 2-metre social distancing within the store”, limiting the numbers of customers in store at any one time and using outside spaces for queuing. Supermarkets have been doing all these things for weeks. It suggests using cashless payments only; many businesses are already doing so. Same for encouraging solo shopping. All the things that have been pioneered in supermarkets will have to be rolled out as more high-street shops reopen; a major issue will be that many just do not have the space outside for a large queue. As far as the logistics suggestions go, many of these are already in place and some were even before Coronavirus was heard of. Scheduling delivery times? Do they think businesses never did this? The problem is that sometimes companies cannot guarantee that a driver will be there on time, perhaps because the goods were late, or the driver was late (or was sick and had to be replaced) or because an earlier delivery took longer than expected. Making sure vehicles are well-ventilated? They all have windows that can open and close. One person refuelling? It should never take more than one person to refuel a truck. They also suggest “finding alternative solutions to two-person delivery”; while this is usually feasible for medium-distance driving jobs, one person cannot get a washing machine up multiple flights of stairs. Perhaps they should ride in two vehicles.

As reported in tomorrow’s Times, the government are already planning to drive people back to work by, for example, cutting the furlough scheme’s payments from 80% to 60% of their original wage from July as they believe that Britain has become ‘addicted’ to the payments. It has always been clear that the government wanted no more disruption to the economy than was absolutely necessary and not to have to subsidise people’s income more or for longer than was absolutely necessary or, perhaps, more than they would not be able to get away with. This is why so many industries are operating as normal and only the retail and leisure industries have really been locked down. Part of the reason there was pressure for a lockdown to be imposed in the first place was that people were being forced to come in to jobs in retail and leisure which put them at risk; easing it for business will mean their staff lose that protection. In many countries in Europe, the majority of industries, including manufacturing, have been shut down by law and people need to fill out a form to tell any passing police officer why they are out of their home. Despite the reports that Spain and Italy have come “out of lockdown” over the past week, really they have moved from an almost total lockdown to our level.

For many people, particularly the middle classes, life under ‘lockdown’ has been quite pleasant; the roads are quiet and the air is clear, and people can go out and enjoy themselves within reason around their local area; many have been busy in the garden. For others, it has been lonely and isolating, particularly those who live alone. Many single parents will not have had face-to-face contact with an adult friend all this time; many women will have been deprived of the companionship of female friends. Almost every day, I see people post on Facebook or Twitter about how they had a brief meeting with their mother for the first time in weeks at a distance or through a window. For people with pre-existing mental illness, the isolation and sudden withdrawal of service may have worsened or changed their symptoms; people who are in institutions have been deprived of trips out and of family visits for this whole period. I am sure many people would not be desperate to get back to work, and certainly would not be willing to take risks with their health and their families’, if there was adequate government support to remain at home; what they do want is to be able to see friends and family, to visit places such as parks and gardens away from their neighbourhood, and these would also carry much less risk if they did not have to rub shoulders with all and sundry at work. And if people want to sit on a park bench and read a paper and have a coffee, they should be allowed to do so. If they are alone (or with others from their household) and apart from others, they are not harming anyone.

There is a slogan that dates from the American women’s suffrage movement and was widely used in American trade unionism: “give us bread, but give us roses too”. The latter sometimes refers to dignity and other times to culture and education. Both government and media are preoccupied with the economy, with “getting us back to work”, but the things that make life worth living seem to have been forgotten about. We can’t live on bread — even home-baked bread — alone.

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Why the ‘English’ are tolerating lockdown

23 April, 2020 - 17:38
A young, white man with spectacles holding a sign saying "Open Now" with a map of Texas between the two words.A protest against restrictions in Texas to prevent the spread of Coronavirus

James Kirkup, writer for the Spectator and director of the Social Market Foundation, published a piece on Unherd today entitled “Why the English sacrificed liberty for lockdown”, musing on how readily and with so little protest the ‘English’ abandoned “the freedom from which America was born” for safety from the Coronavirus, in many ways exceeding the expectations the government had when they imposed it, with for example only a tenth as many children remaining in school as was expected or allowed for. Elsewhere, as he says, lockdowns have resulted in protests:

Only very small numbers of people in some American states are demonstrating against the curtailment of liberty, but they are demonstrating. The English, by contrast, have accepted lockdown with a wistful shrug and maybe a bit of passive-aggressive grumbling, eschewing riots in favour of settling down with a nice cup of tea to wait things out.

To begin with, only a white person could ever describe the United States as any great example of liberty. Many of the colonies which formed the USA were dominated by slavery-based plantations; the institution took a war to end it, and thereafter, the former slaves were subjected to a reign of terror in all of the states where they had previously been used as slaves and were barred from living in many of the others. Even in England at the time, the irony of demands for freedom by slave drivers was remarked on, notably by Samuel Johnson. To this day, America allows states to obstruct voters expected not to vote for the ruling party or to gerrymander electoral districts so as to corral them into as few districts as possible or to spread their vote so as to leave them unrepresented. It is a bastion of liberty only for its ruling class. England is in many ways a more free country; it has fewer levels of government and only one law-making institution, meaning local councils cannot inflict burdensome local laws. People can walk in the road freely and cross where they like as long as it is safe; there is no such thing as ‘jaywalking’ and thus no pretext for malicious arrests.

Kirkup traces our love of liberty to Magna Carta and the Civil War, “which in England at least had its roots in the legal reasoning of men such as Sir Edward Coke, that even the monarch was subject to Parliament’s laws”. Both these events were about constraining the power of the monarch so that he or she could not act lawlessly. Neither of these things were about unrestricted personal liberty or indeed any rights for the individual at all beyond freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. As I have noted here before, these were the mere baby steps in establishing the ideas of liberty and human rights which are cherished in many countries today. Many other countries have written constitutions and higher courts to guarantee them; we do not. In fact, our governing party intends to destroy the nearest things we have to them. It is embarrassing that we boast of these things today to countries which have taken those ideas far further. England was not a free country for centuries after the Civil War: it maintained recusancy fines for people who failed to attend their local church and there were anti-Catholic riots well into the 19th century.

The anti-lockdown protests in the USA, as well as the insistence of some (all Republican) governors on resisting such measures intended to protect public health in a country where large numbers of people have no access to healthcare, have been condemned by medical experts in the USA and elsewhere as reckless and selfish. There have been banners displayed calling for the weak to be sacrificed to ‘save’ the state. There is a contempt for science and for expert authority which may be founded in envy and resentment of those with an education. There is a widespread belief that the virus itself is a hoax, and these false beliefs and reckless attitudes are fostered by the right-wing talk radio and TV networks. In addition, as the USA prides itself on its minimal welfare system and low taxes and resists introducing any form of universal state healthcare, people fear being unable to provide for their families and will be hostile to any attempt by the state to artificially deny them that right.

Finally, in the UK, compared to many other countries in Europe, the lockdown has been fairly mild. People are still able to go to their jobs although most ‘physical’ retail businesses have been closed (online shopping is still allowed and thus the warehouses that enable it are still open), people can go out on pretexts such as shopping and exercise and children are still playing outside, which in much of Europe they have not been for several weeks. The restrictions are not too oppressive; they were brought in as a result of public pressure after the government had resisted doing so for several weeks (as Kirkup notes, Boris Johnson had stated on 18th March that he did not intend to impose restrictions because “we are a land of liberty”; five days later, he did impose them) as shop workers were being put in danger by being required to work without protection and there was the spectacle of people crowding parks and rural beauty spots the following weekend, risking sharing the virus or transmitting it to new places. The government is paying 80% of the wages of those who were put on furlough when their employer’s business was rendered unable to operate or decided to scale down or suspend operations for the sake of their staff or because of reduced business. Life has become more pleasant in some respects, at least for some people: the streets are almost empty, the air is clear. You can walk freely in the middle of main roads and you can go into town and back again with no funny taste in your mouth.

A woman standing outside a Trump hotel wearing a black mask holding aloft a sign saying "Fascism + Silence = Death. @RefuseFascism".A woman protests outside a Trump hotel in New York

Kirkup links the ‘English’ response to the ‘lockdown’ (which isn’t really a lockdown in a sense that anyone who has been in, say, a mental health institution will recognise) to a shift towards authoritarian attitudes revealed by a study by Paula Surridge of Bristol University who has performed studies on liberal and authoritarian attitudes among people of varying persuasions on the traditional “left-right” axis as well as those with a more English or more British identity, and found that authoritarian attitudes (favouring increased censorship and ‘firm’ law and order) are more popular among those with a more ‘English’ identity. This analysis rather ignores other sources of support for the current policy as well as where the chief opposition to it comes from. I frequently see tweets from healthcare workers begging people to stay at home so they do not have to keep seeing people die, especially as they cannot see their families; there has been general support for it among the Asian population which has been significantly hit by the virus. Meanwhile, the main rumblings of discontent are among Tories who have started to demand a relaxation of the restrictions fairly soon as they believe the damage to the economy is becoming too great. One does not have to have a harsh attitude to law and order to support a set of temporary restrictions to protect people, especially the elderly and disabled or chronically ill people, from being exposed to a disease that could kill them. It is worth noting that Johnson, since his brush with Covid-19, has come out against easing the ‘lockdown’ before the peak has well and truly passed.

Let’s not forget that the US Declaration of Independence named three inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Sometimes these three things are in conflict and sometimes everyday liberties have to be put on hold for the sake of long-term freedom for everyone: in the war to defeat fascism, for example. Today, the protection of life is incompatible with the kind of liberty we knew two months ago, or the ways most of us “pursued happiness”. Most people accepted that, indeed before the government did. It is possible that some restrictions will be lifted in the coming weeks, but people’s innocence has gone since the middle of March and many will be much more careful, going out less (at least, when they do not have to), keeping their distance from others as they do now, avoiding crowds. If the government’s plan, as rumoured, is to have the restrictions lifted to allow for VE Day celebrations, they may find the parties poorly attended.

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Blaming the public: PPE edition

21 April, 2020 - 22:32
A woman wearing a red all-over suit, a blue plastic head wrap, dark blue gloves and shoes and a white face mask, standing in a staff area of a hospital with NHS trust notices to her left.

This morning I read that a group of NHS managers had suggested that the public should not be advised to wear masks while outside as their buying them would endanger the supply of PPE to the health service. This has become a matter of serious debate in recent weeks as some areas which have lockdowns have made it compulsory for people who go to shops and other public places to wear a face covering and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wants it compulsory on public transport. However, there are those claiming it gives a false sense of security, that the masks do not provide much protection although they do impede touching the face with hands that might be contaminated, and that people should just be at home rather than out in a mask or otherwise.

Right now, we are allowed out for a daily exercise and to do essential errands such as to buy food and obtain medicine. In the streets and in queues to access supermarkets it is fairly easy to maintain a good distance from other people although some people do not make much effort to avoid you in the street. Inside supermarkets, however, it is a different matter: aisles are narrow, there are obstructions, some areas of the shop are greatly more popular than others, and there are queuing arrangements that take the queue straight past food racks or vending machines. Worse, some supermarkets insist on directing people in and out through the same long, narrow passageway, often blocking an alternative route which could be used as an exit, making it impossible to avoid getting too close to people coming the other way. The same is often true of many workplaces, despite efforts to ensure people keep their distance from each other: the stairway or corridor is often too narrow for people to pass at a 6ft or 2m distance.

Many of the people I see covering their faces are not wearing masks which are suitable for healthcare use, especially when dealing with known COVID-19 patients up close. Aside from the thin surgical masks long favoured by Chinese and Koreans while out and about, there are home-made fabric masks, scarves wrapped around the face, and pollution masks (manufacturers of those have run out and have no date for when supplies will resume). I am seeing a lot of adverts for masks on my social media feeds; I have grown wary of such adverts as things advertised through social media often prove to be poor quality. As for the claim that people would be less likely to wash their hands thoroughly or socially distance if they wear masks, most of us are under no such illusions but in many urban areas, the toilets (which is where the only wash-hand basins are) have been locked. There is nowhere in central Kingston (my home town) to wash your hands at the moment.

It is up to the government to make sure that their staff, the NHS staff, have the equipment they need to do their job safely. That’s what we pay our taxes for. It is scandalous that people are holding fundraising events, walking up and down their own back gardens, to secure PPE for NHS staff that should be readily available. We should be able to produce our own PPE and not be dependent on imports which could dry up at times when they are most needed, like now. Yet again the government lectures the people and implies that we are guilty of undermining the NHS by using masks that supposedly they should be using. It is not as if this virus came out of nowhere last month; the government had three months to prepare and did not do so.

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Putting the NHS on a pedestal

10 April, 2020 - 19:41
 "Keep on clapping ... NHS heroes, like these from Dorset County Hospital, need support". The headline reads "On the side of the angels" and underneath, "Clap heroes at 8pm ... and help raise cash" and to the right "938 dead in day ... lockdown to last until May".The Sun’s front page, 9th April

Last night, for the third Thursday night in a row, people came out of their front doors to clap in support of NHS workers and carers. For the first time, as far as I can tell, there have been rumblings of dissent: people have started to say that clapping really makes no difference when front-line NHS staff lack basic personal protective equipment (PPE) which the government should be providing but aren’t. The news this morning had a segment on volunteers making masks for NHS staff, which is wholly inappropriate; no mask made by someone who just took up sewing this week and does not have access to anything like the sort of material that would protect a nurse dealing with potentially infected people over a whole shift could be adequate (it might help protect someone on a trip to the supermarket). Various newspapers have had front pages portraying the NHS’s staff as ‘angels’ or similarly when, as has been pointed out, some of these same papers were quite recently calling for junior doctors to be sacked when they went on strike. The new Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has apparently called for them to be given medals. And there have been attempts to raise money charitably for the NHS through the donation of one MP’s bonus and the sale of some extremely amateurish artwork by a TV presenter.

I’ve written about this issue in the past in regard to social care and the welfare of people who are forced to live in institutional settings: these are tax-funded services and the key to resolving deficiencies in any of these areas is to change our tax-averse culture. When politicians run election campaigns off the back of a tax bribe to an important section of the middle class, they are undermining the NHS, social care and every other public service. Banks and other financial services have, for decades, openly advertised investment schemes which have as a major purpose tax avoidance, mostly for wealthy clients. It’s well-known that some of the wealthiest individuals associated with the UK spend much of their time in tax havens in the Caribbean and elsewhere so as not to have to pay much tax. Despite loud public disapproval, this has been allowed to continue for decades: supposedly any interference in people’s right to squirrel their money away anywhere they like would be a deterrent to enterprise. But the responsibility for this lies not just with the super-rich but with all of us: nobody likes to pay “too much” tax, politicians know it and always cater to it. Some councils even hold consultations with their residents about what they would be willing to pay more council tax for and the response is usually “nothing”.

Yet when columnists like Ian Birrell write about the abuse scandals — people trapped for months or years in completely unsuitable or abusive psychiatric institutions when they could be living in the community — they blame everything but the money, and this culture is something the Conservative party and its associated media have fostered over the last forty years. Only this week, when it was suggested that nurses deserve a pay rise for putting their lives at risk to treat people with COVID-19 or otherwise, this was rejected as politicising the outbreak. It was suggested that this year’s Comic Relief be held to benefit the NHS rather than the charities it usually supports; Comic Relief, as of 2015, had raised an amount just over £1bn, when Britain spends nearly 200 times that amount on healthcare in just one year (£197.4bn in 2017, for example). No amount of charitable fundraising could raise the sort of money a public health system needs to reliably treat everyone it needs to treat in normal times, let alone during a pandemic, and if penny-pinching were not the order of the day because people were not so stingy about paying their taxes, if people would rather a penny on income tax than one local NHS unit close after another until they find that they can’t get the specialist treatment they need for months if at all, we would not be in the situation we are in now. People prefer to moan than pay.

Finally we must remember that there are dangers to putting the NHS and its staff on a pedestal. It’s true that many staff have been putting their lives at risk to treat people, in large part due to the government’s incompetence at preparing for the scale of this disaster. But throughout its history there have been abuses and mistakes which have led to people being deprived of their liberty in the psychiatric system, left with permanent pain or injury, or killed, and they have not always owned up or supported families after such incidents, using public money to defend claims from patients or bereaved relatives when in some cases their staff were in the wrong. Just a few weeks ago the BBC’s File on 4 investigated failures by Great Ormond Street hospital, a renowned children’s hospital in London which attracts huge levels of charitable fundraising, both in the treatment of some of its child patients and then to investigate those failures afterwards. A few years ago I followed the struggle of Dr Sara Ryan to secure proper scrutiny and an inquest into the death of her son, Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned as a result of a seizure while in the bath in an NHS unit in Oxford; the inquest ultimately found that neglect contributed although the senior clinician chiefly responsible for the state of that unit left the country before she could be held to account. Many of the abuses I have been aware of have been in privately-run units, but sometimes NHS clinicians make the decision to send patients there (as in the case of Claire Dyer). There is bureaucracy, bullying in which whistle-blowers are driven out and denied career advancement, and senior clinicians who interfere with people’s treatment because they are wedded to pet theories and overrule other doctors’ decisions. A case I am aware of involves a young lady with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) who was denied a replacement for her feeding tube which had perished because of interference by psychiatrists. This situation has persisted for more than a year now; she is still unable to get adequate hydration. I’ve said I’ll clap for the NHS when this lady gets her tube.

In other cases where people have died at the hands of the state (prison officers or prison contract staff, the police, immigration service etc), the history has been of persistent failures to secure justice even though there was evidence of racism or a video of the assault. I believed at the time of Connor Sparrowhawk’s inquest that if the NHS was as politically in favour as the police, prison service or immigration service, some way would have been found to avoid a damning verdict. If the public space becomes full of propaganda that portrays the NHS as being staffed by angels rather than human beings, some of them arrogant and/or uncaring or corrupted by power, particularly at senior levels, it will become more and more difficult to achieve accountability for life-changing or fatal mistakes; in coroners’ courts there is already a tendency towards deference towards medical opinion and their scope is much too limited, but jurors will become more sympathetic to pleas about the difficulty of the job, and local media may well run stories sympathetic to them and critical of families. It absolutely must not become more difficult than it already is to seek redress for abuse, malpractice or injury in NHS care as it will be those already at most risk, those with chronic illnesses, learning disabilities, who suffer most and they and their families will be portrayed as ungrateful or bitter when they try to hold those responsible, some of them earning six-figure salaries leading to substantial pensions, to account.

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Blaming the public

6 April, 2020 - 23:50
A picture of a public park with people spread out thinly in small numbers. In the background are some trees and there are blocks of flats on the hillside behind.Brockwell Park, south London

Two weeks into the ‘lockdown’ imposed on us in mid-March, the government continues to reveal little at its daily evening press briefings. Last week I heard the slogan “only one thing worse than no test is a bad test” three times, and it started to sound a lot like an empty slogan. Other countries have used testing as a key part of the strategy to contain the Coronavirus; we test only those admitted to hospital with symptoms, and thus the numbers are likely to be a fraction of the real figures, with local figures skewed towards local authorities with major hospitals (hence the large showing for Lambeth and the tiny numbers in outer London boroughs like Kingston and Richmond). When questioned on the progress of approving tests, they kept talking about testing for front-line NHS staff rather than anyone else; they are not the only people at risk, as many others are dealing with members of the public who may be infected (bus drivers, for example; five of those have died in the last week or so) and millions more are deprived of their liberty and this may be without good reason.

In one of the briefings last week, one of the three participants noted that while public transport use had gone down, there had been a regrettable uptick in motor transport. Well … that is only to be expected, surely? As people using public transport who are not NHS nurses but who still cannot work from home get lectured on the radio by the mayor and even by certain BBC reporters, they might plump for the safest mode of transport available, if they have it. Are they assuming that people are taking frivolous drives or going to see friends, rather than going to work or get groceries or do other perfectly necessary tasks? Both the government and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, use the struggles of NHS staff and the deaths of bus drivers to rail at us for going out when it is their responsibility to make sure that their staff are protected.

Around the time the lockdown was imposed, Haras Rafiq of Quilliam (and previously the so-called Sufi Muslim Council) tweeted that “25% of all deaths in UK are Muslim elders as Muslims are not stopping from Mixing with their elderly and each other” and after receiving replies from Muslims, “It is a reflective of wider problem in community where people just aren’t giving a sh*t and ignoring advice that can save lives”. It’s well-known that many Muslims in the UK live in multi-generational households with grandparents under the same roof as their own children and grandchildren. Often these are small terraced houses. It’s difficult to avoid mixing in these sorts of situations; even the advice to those with medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to infection, to stay indoors and avoid being too close even to those one lives with, assumes that there is room to do this. If you are living in a cramped flat, keeping away from everyone is hard or impossible. It has been common to claim that Muslims have no regard for the law, and various rumours have circulated of mosques remaining open, even for communal prayers, after the lockdown was imposed. The truth is that many mosques closed on Muslims’ initiative before it was imposed.

I do wonder how many of those who have fallen ill in the past two weeks were infected by family members, not by people they met at work or otherwise out and about. This is especially true for those large families in cramped conditions. When people are told to stay in their houses or flats for 22 or 23 hours a day, if there is a family member who has the virus but is asymptomatic, the virus now has ample opportunity to infect the other family members, including older members who perhaps hadn’t got out much in the weeks or months previously and did not see much of the relative who has brought the virus back because they worked long hours or spent many of their nights “on the town”. We are not told who anyone got the virus from and it does not appear that any effort is being made to find out. We hear complaints about public transport or car use and a rising death toll and it is assumed that the reason is poor compliance or that the lockdown restrictions are not stringent enough, but some — perhaps many, as the lockdown continues — of those falling ill were infected by members of their household after lockdown.

One of the ugly traits this crisis has brought out in people is that of looking for faults in others and excuses to complain about others’ behaviour and social media has provided plenty of opportunities. A couple of weeks ago I saw someone suggest that many British people might like a version of old East Germany, with the Stasi but minus the free stuff, and this element have been well and truly out this past fortnight. On Saturday, for example, a couple of photographs circulated of people in Brockwell Park, a large park in south London that lies between Brixton and Herne Hill, amid a number of neighbourhoods where there are a lot of high-density housing blocks where people do not have private gardens, enjoying themselves on a sunny day and some of them were lying on the grass rather than walking or cycling or otherwise doing anything that could be called exercise. Those of us with gardens, of course, can sunbathe there. All the people pictured in Brockwell Park were in ones or twos and all were well spaced out from each other; we do not know how long the ‘sunbathers’ stayed lying on the grass and while against the rules, they were not actually putting anyone at risk. Figures circulated of 3,000 people being in the park, which as locals quickly pointed out, was a paltry number for such a huge park. On Sunday, some footage was posted on Twitter (with tags to attract the attention of the Sun and Mail Online) of people apparently violating the lockdown near Richmond Bridge. A few people were sitting on park benches and there was a guy playing a guitar. Surrey Police sent out tweets including the footage with the familiar “stay at home” message.

A close look at the footage shows that it is potentially misleading. It clearly lacks depth of field and makes the pedestrians look as though they are closer to each other, particularly closer to those in front of and behind them, than they really are. The footage consists of snippets of a second or two before it cuts to another scene, so again, we do not know how long people shown seated remained where they were. The path is in fact a public thoroughfare which avoids a busy road; the river at that point is a beauty spot and a tourist attraction, but people may well have been using it to get somewhere. The guy with the guitar clearly should not have been there, assuming this footage really was shot yesterday — we only have the author’s word on that, and I find the suggestion that someone would break the lockdown so blatantly quite staggering. Any time I have been out, mostly into Kingston town centre, I have found the place almost deserted: a few shops, all selling food and medicine, a couple of takeaways (a fraction of the total) and one market stall are open, often with reduced hours as a result of much reduced footfall. Kingston also has an attractive riverside and I did not see large numbers of people going there.

The people making the fuss about those seen sunbathing are acting like children eagerly pointing out the misdeeds of a classmate. The classmate is possibly doing something wrong and breaking a rule, but harming nobody, and the tell-tales get a buzz out of ‘righteously’ informing on a rule-breaker regardless of whether they made life any better for anyone. According to today’s figures, the rate of people being admitted to hospital for COVID-19 is slowing after two weeks of a fairly moderate lockdown (the death rate is still climbing; however, that reflects the infection rate of a week or two ago), yet every bout of finger-pointing and every distorted or compressed picture showing a couple of people lingering in the sun brings the spectre of a proper lockdown — a ban on any outside exercise, regardless of whether one has space for it at home or whether one’s home is clean or healthy (which may not be a choice) — that much closer. Who is the real “covidiot” — the person lying down on the grass, much more than the requisite two metres from anyone else, or the guy going round with a camera shooting misleading footage to sell to newspapers? Is that a good reason to be out? An essential occupation? Take your own advice, stay home (or get on with your exercise/shopping) and mind your own business.

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Trucking in the time of Coronavirus

2 April, 2020 - 23:55
A red articulated lorry with the Royal Mail logo on the side with a double-deck trailer on a motorway.A Royal Mail truck

The last couple of weeks have been a good time for me in terms of getting work, which had been a bit thin on the ground since the end of the last Christmas period. Usually my work involves a lot of air freight and that dried up at the start of the year, as it often does, but this year the Chinese New Year (which always results in a drastic drop in the amount of freight coming into the country) coincided with the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus in China. At the same time, a lot of the other work I had been doing last year (such as trunking for a big pallet moving operation) dried up for this and other reasons. I am qualified to drive articulated lorries (artics), but much of the work I had until two weeks ago was driving rigid trucks. Over Christmas I did several weeks’ work with the Royal Mail as a temp, and since the ‘lockdown’ started I have been doing several shifts a week with them again, albeit at a different depot to before.

Royal Mail are a pretty good company to work for, even as an agency driver. This is, I believe, in large part the product of it having a strong union. The company have introduced strong social distancing measures although the nature of work on the shop floor means it is sometimes difficult to stay 2m apart from others, but in the transport offices, only one driver is allowed in at a time (to sign in and out and pick up and drop off paperwork). They have toilets at the depots which any driver can use, which are normally well-maintained and clean, but on occasions where I have had to stop, I have not had any complaints. There has been no congestion to speak of; I have not hit a single traffic jam, either on the way in or during my runs (which have been long inter-depot runs), this whole fortnight. I have not had to make diversions to avoid congestion or delays on the M1, which I would normally have to do on a regular basis; even at 5pm, the roads are clear.

I had been working for other companies in the couple of weeks while the outbreak in the UK built up and I noticed that other companies had been getting more relaxed in their usual health and safety rules; they often demand that you hand your keys over when they are loading (so you do not pull the truck off the loading bay when, for example, they are trying to drive a forklift into or out of the back). This has changed in many places in favour of simply minimising contact between you and them. However, this is not the case everywhere. I follow the Twitter account of Truck & Driver magazine and they have posted numerous stories of depots refusing drivers access to toilets (which is illegal) and service stations withdrawing showers and closing most of the food outlets, leaving drivers who are out on the road with no way to get food. One went back to his yard because of lack of food.

For a period in mid to late 2018, my biggest source of work was Amazon. A local company (which had mostly been subcontracting to an air-freight operator near Heathrow) branched out as Amazon needed traction to pull its trailers from a big depot in Weybridge, near to the M25/A3 junction on the south-western edge of London. This is 10 miles from my house, a 20 minute ride down a fast dual carriageway. For the first few months the work was great: a ride up to a depot somewhere in the Midlands (usually Coalville or Rugeley, sometimes Peterborough), swap for a loaded trailer and pull it back to Weybridge. Then the work got more varied and I was increasingly visiting other depots, which they have in every part of the country, and attitudes to drivers and the rules they imposed varied very widely. For example, at Tilbury they demanded I hand over my keys and go and sit in their waiting area when the truck was not coupled to a trailer, let alone being loaded. This cannot be based on anything but a mistrust and contempt for drivers, an assumption that we are at once perverse and stupid, that we would deliberately hook up to a trailer that is being loaded and pull it off for no reason.

Similar policies exist at many other depots: at Weybridge, for example, drivers are expected to hand over keys as well has have a brake lock fitted to their vehicle during loaded; they are also not allowed to decouple (which would eliminate any hazard) or even leave the site. (At Peterborough, they actually told me to go and wait at the nearby motorway service area as they did not have any space for waiting vehicles on site; similarly, Rugeley did not allow breaks on site due to lack of room, so we had to take our chances on the couple of lay-bys on the road back to Lichfield.) In response to my observations about Amazon’s policies, the person behind the T&D Twitter account told me a story of being kept waiting at an Amazon depot in Dunfermline for five hours (when it was nearly empty) and of someone banned from a site for refusing to hand over their keys while decoupled.

Now that Coronavirus means that staff will not want unnecessary contact with strangers who have been to who knows where and in contact with who knows whom, one would have thought that these pointless, insulting “health and safety” practices would be scaled back and perhaps left in the past, but it seems some of Amazon’s managers (as the policies are completely inconsistent) are in no mood to change their policies; perhaps they care as little for their own staff’s well-being as for people who work for anyone else. The demand that drivers sit for hours in a small waiting room with a dozen strangers is a major health hazard and it must stop, and haulage bosses must ensure that their drivers are not subject to this unnecessary risk. Sadly, we can expect that many will not, and unions in the industry — unlike in large, formerly nationalised operations such as Royal Mail — are almost non-existent.

Image source: Paul Evans, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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Some photos from this past winter

29 March, 2020 - 19:16
A view from across a small pond, across a garden on a hill to a large three-storey 19th-century mansion.Scotney Castle house

I’ve been a National Trust member since last April (I joined more or less on the spur of the moment at Petworth, where I realised I had seen enough of the village and had never been inside the grand house and estate that borders onto it) and have posted a number of sets of pictures from its properties around the south-east of England. I was hoping to continue this as the trust originally planned to keep its gardens open during the Coronavirus outbreak, which would have made for some fine photo opportunities as Spring advances, but following the well-publicised excesses of the Saturday before last, they decided to close all of its gated properties and now we are told not to travel anyway. I visited a few of their attractions over the autumn and winter, including Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey where I took some very atmospheric pictures of the lake there, and Wakehurst Place, a property jointly managed with Kew Gardens in London, which also has very extensive gardens. In the couple of weeks before lockdown, I also visited Scotney Castle in Kent, which has a 19th-century country house and a ruined 12th-century castle and some very fine landscape gardens, and Bodiam Castle, a 14th-century moated castle with climbable towers, where I was among the last visitors before it closed due to the outbreak.

They can all be found on my Flickr account:

My other photo sets (including the ones I took at Petworth the day I joined) can be found from this index page.

I have a few others taken at Denbies Hillside in Surrey and the nearby Polesden Lacey mansion and garden, which I took in the autumn and has a bit of autumn colour (of which there was not much last year) which I will try and post in the next day or so.

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Coronavirus must bring about public health improvements

28 March, 2020 - 23:07
 lifts to car park, public toilets and shopmobility".The doorway giving access to Eden Walk’s toilets (up two flights of steps).

One of the things that I have found very noticeable since the beginning of the current Coronavirus outbreak, since well before ‘lockdown’ or even social distancing but back when they were telling us to wash our hands much more often than we are currently used to doing, is how difficult our environment actually makes this. Social distancing and ‘lockdown’ have not replaced the necessity of more frequent hand washing. For years, I’ve refused to eat in restaurants that have no toilet or hand-washing facilities, especially when I would have had to handle the food (fried chicken or anything with bread for example). However, the past few weeks, we have felt the imperative to wash our hands, with soap, even before we put our hands to our faces in case something we have touched may have been contaminated. I don’t normally wash my hands before doing food shopping; I wash them before preparing the food and I don’t worry about, say, having touched the outside of food packaging. But that’s all changing now.

Yet … our built environment still makes it difficult to wash your hands. We are told to take twenty seconds, but finding a toilet in a public place takes much longer. The only wash basins are in out of the way places, usually commercial premises which only allow customers to use them (and some even have code locks so that outsiders cannot simply come in and use them). In shopping centres, they are rarely on the ground floor: in Kingston, the toilets in Eden Walk are on the second floor, up an obscure stairwell that leads to the car park. This location alone would deter many people from even seeking it out. In the Bentalls Centre, they are also on the second floor (where the old food court was) although there are also toilets in Starbucks on the ground floor which I have never been refused access to. There are some toilets in the car park on the way to the Sainsbury’s off Richmond Road, though similarly it is in an ill-observed and poorly-lit location that would also deter use (though they are clean). In Sainsbury’s, they are at the far end of the store (at the front, but a long way from the entrance). Waitrose has none; John Lewis (same company, same building) does, but that part of the building has been closed.

There are so many places where food is served, whether ‘naked’ or packaged, that have no facilities to wash your hands. Many filling stations have coffee machines and hot food stands, for example. Some filling stations have closed their toilets over the years, either to save on maintenance costs or to make more room for the mini-markets owned by supermarkets that take up the service building instead of the usual old few bits of food and motoring accessories you used to find. Until recently, this did not bother me; most of the food I bought was either packaged or was coffee which I didn’t physically touch. Now, I worry that my hands are just near my coffee after handling someone else’s steering wheel. On the way to work yesterday, I stopped at a filling station for a coffee. I took out my hand wash from my bag, rubbed some of it over both my hands then looked round in vain for the toilet. I had to use the water jet for the screen wash (and they’re not made for washing your hands under; you have to squeeze it to get the water out). The station (on the A316 outside Richmond) was massive. I am guessing it will get the “Little Waitrose” treatment in the next year or so.

My point is: toilets have to be more accessible. Hand washing must be readily available. It must be easy to do, so that you would barely think twice about washing your hands before you handle food, especially food that will not be cooked. It must be plentiful, so that there is no great queue. It must be on the ground floor, in a well-observed, well-lit area near the entrance. It must be well-maintained and not stink. This does not just apply to shopping areas; very many areas where people work do not have adequate toilets or washing facilities, especially when many of the workers are visitors (distribution and cargo depots, for example — and some companies have started refusing drivers access to their toilets recently in the name of Coronavirus prevention). It is quite likely that this virus will be a threat to public health for many months even after the current wave and accompanying movement restrictions and social distancing rules pass, and there will be others. We should be able to find somewhere to wash our hands, quickly and easily.

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A soft lockdown

24 March, 2020 - 23:49
An almost empty shopping street with a mostly red-brick pavement. A Foot Locker shop is prominent near the foreground, with a Russell & Bromley shoe shop behind it.Clarence Street, Kingston, 4pm Monday (23rd March)

So, last night Boris Johnson went on national TV (programmes were interrupted or rescheduled on at least two channels) and announced that the British public was being ‘instructed’ to stay at home other than for buying groceries, seeing to medical needs, caring responsibilities and for a bit of exercise, and that all shops other than those selling food and pharmaceuticals (in particular, clothing and electronics) have to close. This followed an outrage on social media at the spectacle of large numbers of people thronging parks such as Richmond Park in London, eating and drinking ‘takeaway’ food at picnic tables or just outside a cafe, and heading out to holiday homes and beauty spots in Wales and to the coast, following Johnson’s decision to order pubs and clubs to close and cafes and restaurants to stop allowing people to eat in last Friday and to encourage people to stay at home if possible. On Monday morning, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, having demanded that people stay off the roads unless they are “key workers”, and having reduced bus and Tube services, images circulated on social media of packed Tubes and the traffic news reporter on BBC London proclaimed that the roads were busy and “they can’t all be key workers”.

I have the impression that this decision was as much a reaction to the social media clamour over those scenes than to the facts. It was only last Friday, after all, that most of the schools finally closed (after mounting public calls) to other than children whose parents are deemed “key workers”. I was in Kingston town centre yesterday (Monday) afternoon and the place was almost deserted. All but a handful of shops in the Bentall’s centre were closed: Smith’s, an opticians, Boots and (strangely) a couple of jewellers were still open, but the department store, the Apple Store and all the food outlets had shut. Outside, most of the shops were also closed and those that were not were going to be closed from today anyway, often in response to staff protests about having to deal with bosses and customers who were oblivious to their health, especially last Saturday. The crowding on public transport, widely complained of by those forced to endure it as well as by the Twitter mob who had the privilege of being able to work from home, happened because people still have to travel to work because not every job in fact can be done from home.

The definition of “key worker” seems to have expanded somewhat: last week I saw a list that included delivery drivers. Usually, it refers to particular professions which are often underpaid but socially necessary, such as teachers, social workers and nurses — professions that traditionally are often if not usually the domain of women. We hear the phrase in such contexts as “key workers cannot afford to live in St Albans because of the sky-high house prices”. But as people are being encouraged, and now forced, to buy anything except food and medicines online, delivery drivers actually need to work as well. Many bosses have resisted calls to close shops and pay workers for the time they will not be able to work; construction sites have carried on working (Sadiq Khan claims he argued for them to be included in the ‘lockdown’, but was overruled). If there is no guarantee of being able to pay the bills without working, people have to work.

The ‘lockdown’ hardly merits the name, anyway. A friend whose daughter has been in a number of secure or locked mental health units wrote on Facebook that her daughter told her, “a lockdown is when they lock all your doors and won’t even let you into the garden, like they do in all places [I’ve] been”. The term originates in prisons, to my knowledge. This does not approach the degree of restriction that people in Italy or Spain have to put up with, where people can only go out alone for groceries or medicine, or to walk their dog (but not take their children for a walk), or to do a protected job (which they have to be able to prove); they are not even allowed to use shared areas of housing blocks. A curious omission from the Monday announcement, and from the media coverage of it, is any reference to the legal basis for the demands: what Act of Parliament or court order justifies it? Last I heard, a speech by the prime minister does not constitute a change in the law. In Kingston today, where I cycled (alone) to get some groceries, there were no police to be seen and only one shop had a queue, although a picture taken in St John’s Wood showed a queue outside a food shop with police alongside them “scrutinising people’s behaviours” from the safety of a van. (This echoes the fears that friends have expressed, that policing of the lockdown will target minorities and ignore the white suburbs, like Kingston.) I found no cafes open, but despite Johnson’s demand that electronics and clothes shops close, a branch of M&S, which has a food hall but the other five sixths of its floor space is taken up by clothing, was open, including the clothing sections. I did not visit Sainsbury’s or Tesco, which sell electronics as well. (John Lewis, which sells clothing and electronics, was closed but Waitrose, the food division, was open.)

Despite the threat of tougher actions if the terms of the ‘lockdown’ are not adhered to, I do not expect Johnson to make good on his claims. It would require the government to guarantee people’s social security — their homes and access to food — while they are unable to work, and it is simply not in his or his party’s ideological DNA to do so. Like Donald Trump, they have been far more concerned to keep the economy going and to ensure that as many people as possible have jobs to go back to after the outbreak is over. With all the talk of the government doing “whatever it takes” to protect businesses and jobs, they have not spelled out where the money for any of this will come from; indeed, businesses have been given a “VAT holiday” and the tightening up of the rules on who can be considered self-employed (which also closes a tax loophole) has been delayed for a year. For what I suspect is the same reason, they have not tested anyone who shows no symptoms of the virus nor traced the contacts of those who tested positive (of the few who were tested, which has only been done in hospital, never in the community). They have also taken over the franchised railway services in order to protect the franchisees, a move some have interpreted as re-nationalising the system but is quite the opposite.

Their intention appears to be to be seen talking about comprehensive measures to help people through the pandemic, but only to do what does not cost money, while blaming the public for the consequences. There is no effective response to this crisis that will not cost money and is compatible with the low-tax, laissez-faire libertarian ideology which has been dominant in this country for the past four decades, much less with the disdain for expert authority that has been cultivated by the British popular press for about the same time. When people are conditioned to believe that “evidence they don’t like is a myth invented by the metropolitan elite”, it should come as no surprise that when the government suddenly appeals to expert opinion to try to persuade the public to change their behaviour.

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Coronavirus: panic buying and the dangers to disabled people

20 March, 2020 - 22:43

The medication review I talked about in my previous post happened today. The surgery texted me at 8am to tell me they would be carrying it out over the phone rather than face-to-face. This was after I had turned down paid work yesterday evening so that I could make it to this appointment, something I mentioned to the doctor who told me that they had only decided to carry out the consultation over the phone this morning because “things are changing every day”. I could see when I booked the appointment that the situation would escalate considerably by the end of this week, so I’m surprised it took this long to implement that policy.

A group of people sit on benches in front of a glass lift outside a McDonald's restaurant, where seats are on top of tables. Some of the people are eating food from McDonald's. A flight of steps down to the basement is visible in the foreground and an escalator up from the ground floor is visible in the background. Directly above the McDonald's is an optician's shop.A group of people sit outside a McDonald’s in the Bentalls centre, Kingston, some of them eating.

Britain so far has no formal ‘lockdown’ policy of the sort which has been imposed in Italy, Spain and France. However, gradually, companies that serve the public are changing the way they operate: even before the government’s announcement tonight (closing pubs and all other leisure facilities and restricting restaurants to takeaways and deliveries only), some chain cafes and restaurants have switched to takeaway only, to not accepting cash, to not accepting reusable cups (which they have previously encouraged with discounts). Both Starbucks and Costa will serve you coffee in one of their disposable cups and still give you the discount if you present a reusable cup. I walked past a Caffe Nero in Kingston this afternoon and there were still people eating and drinking at the tables outside (and probably inside), making no attempt at the social distancing we are all being encouraged to practise. McDonald’s was one of the first to ban in-house dining, but at the branch in the Bentalls centre in Kingston this week, people were still sitting in the indoor mall just outside McDonald’s eating the food they had brought there.

There is increasing social pressure to stay at home: even Boris Johnson at his daily press conference this evening had slogans on each of the three podiums, “stay at home”, “save the NHS”, “save lives”. I am seeing a lot of appeals on social media to stay at home because going out spreads the virus. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, posted an appeal on Twitter not to even go to work unless your job is ‘critical’. However, it’s difficult to minimise your time away from home when it’s so difficult to find basics in any supermarket. Some open 24 hours, others from first thing until 11pm, and the things everyone wants are gone within a couple of hours. It’s nearly impossible to find bread, butter, eggs, common vegetables (luxury vegetables like olives are still plentiful) and, worst of all, soap. Yesterday I must have visited 11 or 12 shops, big and small, supermarkets and pharmacies, in this area and did not find much of what I needed. This took me five hours which I had wanted to spend at home, ironing or writing this. For all the talk of the virus being a big win for the planet, with pollution levels down and dolphins appearing in the seas off Italy for the first time in ages, this situation is benefiting neither public health nor the environment.

The lack of availability of soap is the biggest scandal here: soap kills the coronavirus, it’s essential to protecting ourselves from it, yet shops seem to be ordering no more of it than they usually do. There is a mixture of panic buying, hoarding and simple increased use at play here; people will have started washing their hands at times they previously would not have, or would not have used soap (e.g. before they eat, rather than just after they use the toilet). I visited three branches of Boots in the Kingston area today and not one had any and far from having a large supply of it on a stand prominently signed “SOAP”, they had about three shelves for the stuff which was at the back of the store, past all the hair and holiday products and luxury skincare items. Shops all have these signs asking customers “think before you buy!” but a policy of only selling any customer three units of any high-demand item means it will run out very quickly. Some places still have sanitiser, but I don’t like using the stuff; I want something I can wash off, and in any case, anti-bacterials are useless against viruses and produce resistant bacteria.

Quite a number of my friends have children and other relatives who have learning disabilities, particularly in combination with autism. Many of them have fought long and hard to get them home to them or into places where they can live in the community. Yet the things that they enjoyed doing are now being made impossible and unlike the rest of us, they may not understand why; for example, going to the pub with family members or carers for a drink. Others are finding that carers are resigning or self-isolating. Some care homes both here and elsewhere have imposed lockdowns and barred residents from seeing their families either at the home or elsewhere. The government’s new Coronavirus Bill which they intend to pass into law very quickly contains ‘temporary’ amendments to the Mental Health Act which makes it easier to section (detain) someone (though some of the existing ‘safeguards’ are often worthless, as with the two doctors who in practice almost never disagree) and suspends local authority duties under the Care Act to provide care for disabled adults. The latter has serious ramifications for those with physical impairments, of course, but to deprive a person with a learning disability of social care when it could lead to difficult behaviour stemming from the confusion and sudden change in routine puts them in serious danger of ending up in an ATU (assessment and treatment unit) or other mental health setting, which as experience shows, need not be anywhere near home or easily accessible.

The government has a huge majority and the bill is expected to go through on the nod. I accept the need to stem the transmission of this virus; thousands have died in countries where it has taken hold. But people have died worse deaths in ATUs than from COVID-19 and there are other categories of ‘vulnerable’ people besides the elderly and medically fragile.

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