Coronavirus week 19 – That didn’t last long…second wave starting

A short heatwave but signs of another wave of infection.

According to one of the weather forecasters I heard, to qualify as a heatwave there needs to be a period of three days of higher than average temperatures, but ours this week was only one day. It was 20-21 degrees on Thursday and reasonably sunny, by Friday afternoon it was 35 but by the evening it was cloudy muggy and raining and on Saturday it was back to 21 with a cool wind and some showers.

At the end of my last blog I suggested that I may not do another for a few weeks as things appeared to have reached a ‘steady state’, with falling numbers of deaths and a ‘levelling off’ in the number of infections. That idea didn’t even last for 24 hours. It wasn’t that a couple of people were kind enough to comment on my Facebook post saying that they enjoyed reading them; it was watching Channel 4 News on Monday evening.  It’s a way of getting updated on current events that I get the most from. All day ‘rolling news’ is a great thing, something we never had in ‘the good old days’ when there were only three or four terrestrial television channels. The problem is that even  BBC News 24, whose coverage I also enjoy, only touch the surface of a story. I don’t want to sound like a ‘grumpy old man’, but programme makers appear to think we are incapable of listening for more than 90 seconds, or in ITV’s case, that we also need the chance to win a £150,000 prize of gifts we probably don’t need.

Anyway, it was watching the news on Monday evening that there were so many items I wanted to write about, many of them linked to each other or to coronavirus. Hence this blog with all the topics originating with the items on that edition.

Holidaymakers returning from mainland Spain complaining that there were more cases of the virus on one caravan park in Shropshire, than the whole of the Balearic Islands, and they felt safer in a country where everyone was obeying the rules on social distancing and hygiene. By the evening, the islands had been included. Transport minister Grant Shapps went to Spain but had to isolate when he came back on Wednesday. I admit to thinking that I would go if insured, and suffer two weeks quarantine or extend the holiday as I was sure there would be extra capacity. By the end of the week, however, as local lockdown was declared for large parts of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and West Yorkshire, like others I suspect, I was more doubtful.  I listened to arguments about having to declare whole countries as giving a simpler message than trying to exclude certain areas, and had to agree. Whilst the Canaries are further from mainland Spain than Venice is from London, it would not be difficult to get around the rules by taking a flight from the mainland to the islands and return from there. There is also the danger of catching the virus and having to be in hospital in a foreign country possibly for a long time where the care may be excellent, but my Spanish is almost non-existent.

Despite early criticism there appeared to be more acceptance later in the week when the rates of infection in Belgium (which had one of the highest rates in Europe in the earlier part of the pandemic), and Luxembourg, were rising very quickly. It seems a ‘second wave’ is starting to spread across Europe.

In the UK cases were definitely rising with average daily cases approaching 800 at the end of the week. The fact that average daily deaths was still falling to about 60 at the end of the week, could point to two things; that the lag between cases and serious illness is not showing yet, or that it is mainly younger people getting infections and they don’t generally suffer with the more life-threatening symptoms.

Boris says ‘get on your bike’…

Boris encouraged us (like Norman Tebbit in 1981) to ‘get on our bikes’, but this time not to look for work, but in an effort to fight obesity. The web site handing out free £50 vouchers to get bikes repaired crashed due to demand. Not surprising for £2.5million of untargeted benefits. Many would be snapped up by those who could well afford to repair the bicycle that had lain neglected in the garage for years. It all seemed a bit of a headline-grabbing gimmick. Boris has previous on this topic. As Mayor of London he encouraged people to use a Transport for London (TfL) scheme for hiring simple bicycles parked in many areas in the city to travel to other areas. Registered users could take any of the 5,000 cycles from any of the 315 docking stations in central London to any other for a relatively small fee. This was in 2010 and proved successful. The original bikes were sponsored by Barclays bank with a blue highlight. The scheme was transferred to Santander bank with the current ones mainly red and there are now 11,000 bikes and 800 ‘stations’ spread across 40 square miles of London. 

In a week of mixed messages I had one alert from GOV.UK announcing a ban on buy one get one free offers on unhealthy food, and the next one reminded me that I could go to the pub or restaurant and taxpayers will give me 50% off any meal. This is for as many times as I like. So presumably I could get a first course with chips, followed by a chocolate brownie/ice cream / sticky toffee pudding (with extra chocolate sauce) for 12 days (it’s only Monday-Wednesday) from 3rd to 31st August. All washed down with a nice glass of wine or beer – but don’t worry the discount is not off those and they don’t contain many calories. Even HMRC were putting out Tweets about the offer – even if they couldn’t bring themselves to think people might want other European or even British menus…?

The idea of making it a requirement to put calories on all restaurant menus is a good one, but many pubs and fast-food sites do that now. The problem appears to be the ‘education’ needed to allow us to make the healthier choices.

Channel 4 News had an interview with chef Jamie Oliver (who also has years of campaigning for us to make more healthy choices. He made the point that the good quality food is more expensive, and those with less money can only afford the ‘less good’. Rather than taxing sugar, he suggested that perhaps we should be subsidising healthier food.

It could be that this approach to obesity, exercise and healthy eating was related to Boris’s own experience of Covid-19 and the realisation that his own health may have meant not seeing his fiancee and young child? There are many in the Conservative Party who decry the so-called ‘Nanny State’ (itself a posh expression), but a government that claims to have been ‘following the science and experts’ appears in the past to have paid more attention to the food and drink industry lobbyists than ‘health experts’ when deciding policies. Like tobacco before it, the ‘curse of sugar’ needs mass cultural and social change if it is to be effective.

What it doesn’t need is ‘fat-shaming’ and judging people by their apparent excess weight. The majority of our population have some problems maintaining a healthy diet. No one wakes up one day and finds themselves several stones overweight.  The busyness of our lives and availability of cheap food make it hard to change. I have the luxury of a good income, the space to own an exercise bike, and a pleasant area go out for a run. In my case I have made a conscious decision to change, and am currently about a stone less in weight than I was at the start of March. I also know it will be a struggle to keep this way once we get back to eating out again on a regular basis.  I often wonder how people in poverty-stricken countries who have to walk miles to get clean water or a meagre amount of food to take back to a house with no electricity, would make of our kitchen cupboards and American-style double refrigerators. As if that wasn’t enough for them to take in, imagine trying to explain that we then pay a membership of £360 a year for the privilege of driving, three or more times a week ,to a large warehouse full of bicycles that don’t move and treadmills. All in an effort to lose the excess body mass we have!

The next item of news last Monday was one on rehabilitation from the after effects of having Covid-19, or one of its variants dubbed ‘Long Covid’, as the fatigue and memory issues and muscle weakness can last for months (maybe even years, we don’t know yet). The item showed a group using a gym closed due to lockdown, and sharing experiences with people who have been through the same thing.  This is just like my journey after brain injury, when I found the charity that brings together people from all parts of society and background to share with each other. Access to physio and rehab services across the country is patchy at best, but so vital. All of this should have happened years ago. There is a small charity that works with people who have been in intensive care for long periods of time. Patients may be physically well, but the mental effects can last a very long time.  If this step of physio is missing or not done thoroughly, there is more of a cost to the country in terms of lost working days and productivity, as well as actual treatment, medicines, and care in old age. It makes no sense health wise or economically, not having these services readily available for everyone.

The final two articles on the Monday evening news was one that US president Trump’s security advisor had tested positive, after a trip to Florida ,where there is a rise in cases of Covid-19.  Then that Brazil’s president Bolsanaro has been reported to the International Criminal Court, by an umbrella group representing health worker unions and social care organisations, for ignoring and mishandling the crisis. Their claim of crimes against humanity amounting to genocide are unlikely to be taken on by the ICC but demonstrate the strong feelings in the country.  There was an interview (on BBC news!) with a doctor in a hospital in Sao Paulo stating that they had people turn up at hospital still claiming it was all false and a hoax – but when they ended up in intensive care they say ‘doctor don’t let me die and tell my family to take care!’ 

Other news last week.

  • We watched Jimmy McGovern’s powerful drama imagining the life Anthony Walker a young black man killed aged just 18 in 2005. He wanted to become a barrister. His mum asked the writer to show him qualifying against all the odds, marrying his (white) girlfriend at the time of his death, having a child and saving his best man from a life of crime by taking him to live with his family after becoming destitute. It brought me to tears. 
    Anthony’s mother, Gee Walker, has setup a trust in his name and as a Christian she believed this was part of Anthony’s legacy.  This will be something that is hard for those without a faith to accept. But I believe, as his mother hopes, that despite not becoming a civil rights lawyer and going to America, Anthony’s legacy through the work his mum does, and the effect of this drama, means more people could be touched. Some small comfort to his brave mum.
  • Late Thursday evening health secretary Matt Hancock announced that Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire were told to go into a ‘local lockdown’. This was due to a ‘spike in cases’ from people going into each other’s homes. There was some confusion and a great deal of contention from the Muslim population as it was the eve of Eid one of the major feasts of Islam. One leader likened it to cancelling the Christmas Day at 9 o’clock on Christmas Eve, although another did acknowledge that when the original lockdown was imposed many Christians had to miss Easter Day celebrations.
    Writing as someone who is doing project work for a company in Sale, there was concern that some members of the team who had only returned to work because their parents could look after the children again, may have to go back on furlough until the lockdown was over.
  • Another member of the team at the company developed some symptoms and was relieved when their test came back negative – but they had to wait over 3 days for the result.
  • One report from Manchester showed a street where many of the rainbow posters drawn to put in windows to celebrate the NHS Heroes were faded and torn….perhaps a sign of how quickly we forget?
  • One of the most worrying statements last week was from Professor Chris Whitty as he stood next to Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference on Friday announcing that the opening of face to face beauty treatments and bowling alleys was to be delayed for a further two weeks at least. He said

“I think what we’re seeing from the data from ONS, and other data, is that we have probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society.

“So what that means potentially is that if we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things.”

He expanded to say that if we are to get children back to school in September we may need to close some other places (pubs perhaps?) or put new limits on what people can do and who they can meet.

It really does feel this week that we are not in a ‘steady state’ anymore….!

How was week 19 for us?

After weeks of training and struggling with IT and ‘HR’ Alyson finally managed to book a few shifts on NHS 111 service…but only as reserve. She responded ‘I don’t want to be a reserve I want to be on the first team!’ Her wish came true on Friday when she was given just 20 minutes notice that she was working an 8-hour shift. This was due to late cancellations by two other people on the shifts. The deal is that people are supposed to get 24 hours’ notice. So, she managed to cancel one and worked 4-8pm. It was a tough shift, not only with the types of call, but using the systems for the first time. Reflecting afterwards Alyson felt that she had helped people at a difficult time, and knew that the next shift(s) would be better.

We both signed up as volunteers for vaccine trial in conjunction with the NHS and a pharmaceutical company. Unlike last week’s attempt we both passed the age & health requirements.

After the very warm day of Friday we went to Coventry for a ‘socially distanced picnic’ in a large park to meet up with Alyson’s sister and brother and their families in  Coventry. It was good to see everyone again including our two boys and our nieces. There were three generations and one of our nieces is expecting her first child in October  – she works in a hospital so was concerned about getting too close to us, but I think she enjoyed the day. The only member of the family who couldn’t come was our nephew who returned from the Spanish Balearic Island of Majorca so was self-isolating in his London flat.

On Sunday I attended my now weekly Zoom service at Westminster Central Hall Methodist Church. It was great to be part of a ‘congregation’ of over 1,100 people sharing in worship. Rev Howard Mellor gave an amazing sermon on the ‘original picnic’, the feeding of the 5,000, a miracle told in exactly the same way in all four gospels. Howard pointed out a small word that I had not noticed before – grass! Despite the disciples only having meagre rations of five loaves and two fishes, and thinking that was not enough to feed the crowd, Jesus managed to make it sufficient for all the people (more than 5,000 when including the women and children) and ‘still there were 12 baskets left over’. All this in an area which, because of the grass, was clearly a place of abundance where crops could grow. Howard’s message to those of us hoping to be modern day ‘good disciples’ was however little (in terms of skills and gifts) we think we have, if we give it to Jesus, he can help us achieve so much more than we ever believed.

Stay safe and let’s see if there is enough for another blog next week!

Coronavirus week 18 – the long wait for a vaccine

Will it be the scientists or anti-vaxxers who stop us getting a vaccine?

For the first time in the last 18 weeks of lockdown I found myself agreeing with Boris Johnson. He was visiting a GP surgery in London to promote the importance of flu jabs in the upcoming winter. Referring to the opponents of vaccinations he called them ‘nuts’. Ever since (the then doctor) Andrew Wakefield persuaded many parents 20 years ago not to give their children the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine following some ‘research’ linking it to autism and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the use of vaccines has been called into question. 

Researching the claims by (now struck off doctor) Wakefield I learned the following facts from the General Medical Council (GMC) fitness to practice hearing of 2006 published in 2010.

  • A good study will include many participants, and Wakefield’s study included only twelve children.
  • Wakefield lied in the Lancet paper when he wrote that the participating children were referred independently after being diagnosed with IBD or other major gastrointestinal issues. In fact, many of the children were chosen specifically by Wakefield, and others were recruited with the help of the same lawyer who was paying him to conduct the study.
  • Even before publication of the study, Wakefield was working on patenting his own version of a measles vaccine, which he would sell at a great profit as a supposedly “safe” alternative to the MMR vaccine. The father of one of the children in Wakefield’s study was a cofounder of the planned business that would market this product.

The problems caused by Andrew Wakefield were in the news last August. Children who didn’t get vaccinated as their parents listened to him and not their doctors were now students, and an outbreak of measles was happening leading to serious side effects. The UK along with other parts of Europe has lost its status of being ‘measles free’.

The cofounder of Microsoft, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are an example of people who have acquired enormous wealth, but are trying to use that to help others. They have been victims of terrible social media attacks and conspiracy theories as a result of pledging literally billions of dollars to vaccination programmes for children. They are partners of Gavi a global alliance of the WHO, UNICEF,  The World Bank and donor countries with the aim of funding vaccination programmes for children in all areas of the world. This will improve health, prevent needless deaths and lead to less poverty. In June a little-reported summit of world leaders was hosted by the UK and pledged over $8billion over the next five years to the programme.

The UK can be proud of being the largest donor pledging £330million a year. As Bill Gates said at the time

To beat the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs more than breakthrough science. It needs breakthrough generosity. And that’s what we’re seeing today as leaders across the public and private sectors are stepping up to support Gavi – especially Prime Minister Johnson. When COVID-19 vaccines are ready, this funding and global coordination will ensure that people all over the world will be able to access them.

In recent weeks Russia (who pledged no new money in addition to the $4milion per year share from a previous campaign) have been accused by the UK of trying to steal scientific secrets on the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. China, who also only pledged $4million per year, are still being accused as a possible source for the current outbreak. 

To be clear, the pledges are for vaccinations of all types and not just Covid-19. Since 2000 over 760 million children have been vaccinated against polio, pneumococcal disease, typhoid, MMR, meningitis and rotavirus (that causes diarrhoea). However, the lockdowns in various parts of the world and the WHO advice to temporarily suspend vaccination programmes, to prevent people from spreading Covid-19, could lead to an estimated 6,000 children dying every day from lack of protection that vaccination provides. It’s a terrible dilemma for many countries’ health systems.

Their personal $1.6 Billion pledge hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists putting false information out about Bill & Melinda Gates, accusing them of wanting to use the programme for mass sterilisation to control world population, and even implanting a microchip as part of the programmes, to track everyone in the world.

This week DHSC announced that eligibility for the programme of flu injections for the coming winter has been extended to 30 million people in an attempt to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by a flu pandemic and a second wave of Covid-19. We have had years of creating vaccines for seasonal influenza which is a slightly different strain each time, but even these aren’t always fully protective, but can lessen the severity of symptoms and reduce the rate of infection. 

We have never succeeded in getting an effective vaccine against any of the coronaviruses. Even with about 150 programmes to develop one and almost 25 starting human trials, there are questions to be answered  before getting one. Here are seven according to an article I read this week.

  1. Is the vaccine safe? Early results suggest that there can be mild side effects from the vaccines, but more worryingly these can we worse in those more likely to be affected by the actual virus – the elderly and those with comorbidities. It is possible that a vaccine could make the disease worse in those who have it already.

  2. Does the vaccine work? The general view is that it is unlikely to be completely effective and Professor Chris Witty has said that at least 50% would be a good result.

  3. Will protection from a vaccine fade over time? There was some excitement when the vaccine being developed at Oxford produced the type of reaction expected, but it could be that this fades after a few weeks or months. However, there is also a theory that some element of ‘immune memory’ could result that helps the next similar infection.

  4. Can we mass-produce it? Whilst the UK Government claims to have pre-ordered 100 million doses and be investing £150 million in new production facilities, there will be a long timescale. Some vaccines need to be stored in specials conditions such a low temperatures before being given. This could also be a challenge both in transportation and worldwide in countries with poor facilities and health systems.

  5. When will we really have a vaccine?  Are we talking about when we have a proven vaccine after clinical trials, when it is approved by regulators, when we have enough to give it to key workers in clinical settings and then those at greatest risk, or when we have enough to inoculate the whole world?
    There is a danger that if supplies are strictly limited only those who can afford it, or have the political leverage to get it will be treated. This will only exacerbate conditions in the rest of the world who can’t afford it – and the virus will be around for even longer.

  6. Once we have a vaccine, will people want to get it? So we come back to the anti-vaxxers or even those who are just cautious. In a recent poll about one in five Americans said they don’t plan to get a coronavirus vaccine, while half said they would. The rest were unsure. The US has a system where people need to pay or have insurance, so even in the richest country in the world cost could be a barrier.

  7. What about booster shots? It is likely that any vaccine could need more than one dose to maintain effectiveness, so all the points about cost and organisation of healthcare systems come back into play.

There was an appeal for volunteers to take part in the clinical trials for vaccines produced by Oxford University and Imperial College London, so I thought I might offer – but although I am fairly fit and healthy I am over 55 so that was the end of that.

Vaccines aren’t the only treatment and this week again there have been trials of a new therapy based on a protein called interferon beta that have shown promising results when given as an inhaled dose. This was previously shown to have been effective for the treatment of SARS.

Other news this week.

  • A couple of months ago when the government was recruiting 25,000 people to train up to ‘track and trace’ contacts of those who had a positive test for the virus, there were newspaper stories of them having so little to do that they were watching Netflix movies. A story emerged this week that could have been interpreted in a way that could have suggested these people were making their own work. It was an ‘international’ story too.
    The English NHS ‘test and trace’ system has been outsourced to a US company that uses call centres based in Scotland.  Eight of the Scottish workers there tested positive for coronavirus, meaning that the Scottish system, called ‘test and protect’, had to get involved to trace their contacts – you couldn’t make it up!
  • In an interview on the anniversary of taking over as leader of the Conservatives and moving into 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson admitted that there were some ‘open questions’ to be answered about the handling of the crisis in relation to timings of lockdown and protecting care homes. There was a less than generous video doing the rounds on social media claiming that as the virus was spreading across the world Boris missed several COBRA meetings, was uninterested in briefings and more interested in throwing a party to celebrate ‘getting Brexit done’.
  • Whilst the school holidays had started and some people were enjoying time in Spain, on Sunday morning all four UK governments brought back measures for people returning from the country to isolate for 14 days on their return. Despite FCO advice that travel to the Balearic and Canary Islands was still allowed, and only that to mainland Spain was not recommended, people returning from the islands still had to isolate. Such measures had been on the cards, but the suddenness and extent caused some controversy with many people again unsure of their holiday insurance situation. Many will also lose money as not all employers will be sympathetic to them taking more time away from work.
  • The number of cases is still falling very slowly with average daily deaths at 64 by the end of the week, down 8% from last week. The number of daily cases was averaging 662, which is up over 6% from last week. We are definitely plateauing but possibly to a sustainable level to live with as a trade off for an economic recovery.  Total deaths reported for the outbreak was 45,752.
  • At the same time as gyms and swimming pools are allowed to open, the government was trailing an old idea of getting doctors to focus on reducing the levels of obesity in the country. This is one of the key factors that makes people particularly susceptible to severe symptoms of Covid-19, as well as being bad for general health. Laws on advertising junk food will be brought in and GPs will be allowed to prescribe 12-week health plans and exercise.

How was week 18 for us?

It was back to work for me with planning for the project I am doing with the accountants in Manchester. The pressure is on to complete the first stages of the system in the next three months. We are not planning to be away on holiday any time soon so this should be manageable.

Alyson continued to come close to getting a first shift with NHS 111 pharmacy advice service. She had more technical problems but at the end of the week all appeared sorted and this is a photo of her ‘mobile call centre with a laptop with connection to the NHS systems, two screens, a smartcard and a mobile phone system that allows her to call patients using an NHS number.

In the week more sports opened up, I was pleased to be able to follow some Major League Baseball (MLB) as the team I support the Toronto Blue Jays started a shortened season in empty stadiums. As the only team in MLB outside the US, the Canadian authorities would not give them permission to play home games in Toronto as it would mean them crossing the border to play away games and US teams crossing to play at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Right up to Opening Day on 23rd the team had no base, but then it was decided to play games at their minor league team’s base in Buffalo in New York State. Their first series was away in Florida, so they need to get the stadium ready for the first home series, which was to be next weekend but has been put back until 11th August.
My other sports team, Middlesbrough football club managed to survive in the Championship on the last day of the season on Wednesday – ironically away at Sheffield Wednesday. Two teams previously managed by World Cup winner Jack Charlton, whose funeral was the day before.

Keep safe everyone and let’s see what the next week brings.

I am thinking about stopping this blog for a few weeks as the situation in the UK appears to be in a steady state.

Coronavirus weeks 16 & 17 – will it all be over by Christmas?

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go..

I couldn’t decide whether to title this blog ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ or the one I settled on. Unlike Boris Johnson and his government, on balance I decided to ‘trust the scientists’.  There are still too many unknowns to be sure. I acknowledge that the recent announcements were a ‘hope’ rather than an assertion, and one role of government is to ‘get the economy going’ in order to raise the funds needed to do all the spending needed, and there will be harm to health if there is mass unemployment and economic hardship.

The dilemma was summed up by Matt Pritchett’s cartoon in The Telegraph newspaper on Saturday.

Alyson asked me how I felt about the announcement and I replied honestly that I was conflicted. On the day when the statistics on deaths and new cases were also thrown into confusion (or to be precise more confusion), this added to my uncertainty. I have looked at statistics in an earlier blog, and whilst the figure for ‘excess deaths’ produced by the ONS is a more reliable figure, I have stated the daily announced figures from the government briefings in each blog. I am no longer able to do that as they are no longer being declared. It seems that we have been counting as a ‘daily death’ in England if someone dies of any cause but had been tested positive in the last few months. The example used was somebody having a positive test in March and then dying from a heart attack in June. The effects of any ‘error’ in these figures may be a few thousand, and acknowledging that every death is tragic, but in the overall view it will make little difference.

The best estimate we can manage is that the 7-day rolling average death toll is currently around 69 per day, slightly down on previous weeks. Average new cases have steadied off but are now rising slightly again to 621 per day.  The government has three ways of measuring total deaths with differing time periods as below.

The other change recently, and one that is probably the way forward, is looking at much more localised figures, along with giving local authorities and public health managers the ability to put in effective measures – the idea of ‘local lockdowns’. I wrote a few weeks ago that local systems had been dismantled and now they will have more of a role to play. This is the current data on ‘areas of concern’.

Before leaving statistics for this week, as I write the levels of coronavirus globally are still rising and the number of daily infections is the highest recorded so far with the WHO putting it at 259,848 with 7,360 more deaths. So while the situation in our country is levelling off, this still remains a global pandemic – a fact that we all need constantly reminding of. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal to help those around the world where Covid-19 is adding to poverty, famine, war and poor health provision is one example of people trying to help others in a practical way. It is good to see UKAid matching the donations as well.

New ways of working and a new economy.

Anecdotally, there is a reluctance to return to ‘normal work’ and particularly in office situations. This may be due to safety concerns, childcare or possibly that people are learning that there is more to life than commuting in crowded public transport, or sitting in a traffic queue. Whatever the reasons I do think there will be, to use a phrase from my last blog, ‘a reorientation’ of the world of work. People do want to spend more quality time with family, taking exercise outdoors, working remotely, and spending less on ‘stuff’ we accumulate. Endless ‘consuming’ of the world’s resources and damaging our environment are topics that will be higher on the agenda. These are complex and interrelated issues and some initial questions that need exploring and debating politically are;

  • Economically can we come up with a new model where value is derived from providing more ‘services’ and ‘experiences’ than from manufacturing things?
  • How will money flow from those providing such things and those paying for them?
  • Will there be sufficient tax income to enable government/society to provide essential services such as education, health and social care, and a ‘safety net’ for those unable to take part due to disability, health or social conditions?
  • Who will be the people/organisations willing to invest in these new ways of working/supplying?

I worry that it is all too easy for employers to simply ask people to work from home without providing the necessary environment for that to happen effectively.  Those, like us, who are lucky enough to have a large house with two rooms we can dedicate to be ‘offices’,  with good connectivity and equipment will be able to do more effective work. However, imagine being in a shared flat in the centre of a city where four or more 18-35 year-olds are trying to sit on a bed with a laptop for hours on end, not having enough bandwidth to download data or stream video, having to be ‘available’ for your ‘boss/supervisor’ whenever they choose. Possibly you will need to be close enough to travel into the office once a week/twice a month for face to face group meetings or to talk to clients/customers. You will be stuck in a no-win situation of neither being able to move to less expensive places to get on the property ladder, or having little time to take advantage of the social interactions needed to build up any sort of ‘team / business’ culture that separates good organisations from the merely satisfactory.

There could be upsides to this if planned effectively. If there is a collapse in the commercial property sector with large office blocks being freed up, then these could be re-purposed for affordable city living, and shops on deserted high streets in smaller towns could be converted to ‘work hubs’ where people could travel short distances to ‘hot-desk’ in comfortable offices with good connectivity, shared meeting spaces and good facilities. This would allow the separation of home from work that many desire, but still leave time to spend on leisure/social activities with friends and family. If I was a larger company wondering where my market was going, this is what I would be investing in.

Why the virus will be dangerous for a long time

The other aspect of the current situation that we need to resolve in this country is the suggestion (or is it a fact?) that the ‘virus is going to be with us for a long time’. Given there are countries across the world who have been through a very hot summer and also ones where there have been winters, it seems the virus is not affected by either. There were two snippets of news that I heard, but have not been able to research much at the time of writing, which are potentially worrying.

  1.  The virus is mutating (as all viruses like the flu one do) and the ‘second’ virus which mutated from the one originating in Wuhan is now the ‘dominant’ one and causing the current pandemic.
  2. Having antibodies from an infection of coronavirus is not a guarantee that you will be able to resist a second bout of infection – the antibodies are not ‘long-lasting’.

The two issues are interrelated, and both make it hard to produce an effective vaccine. There is no evidence that the mutation makes the virus more transmissible which is the other worry. We have been lucky in one regard that although the current version of the coronavirus is quite easy to catch, it only appears to seriously affect certain sections of the population, with many getting mild symptoms.

If we had taken more notice and put in systems and plans after previous outbreaks of MERS, SARS and Swine Flu, outcomes may have been better. We have had plenty of warnings. It is vital that we learn lessons as the real ‘doomsday scenario’ is that the next virus might be all of the following;

  • Very easily transmissible via contact or being airborne.
  • Able to last for a long time on many surfaces and in many environmental conditions.
  • Affect almost everyone who gets it in an extremely serious or deadly way.

The nearest we came to this was SARS which was quite hard to catch and cross borders, but spread to 26 countries and killed almost 10% of those who caught it . It was contained in a relatively small area of the world, and this is why wearing masks and contact tracing is more accepted in south Asia than in Europe or The Americas.  MERS was relatively short-lived and contained but with a death rate of around 35%. Both of them killed between 700-900 each. Swine flu in 2009 is thought to have killed between 123,000 and 200,000 globally, spreading to 214 countries in a year, but being a variant of the ‘flu’ virus many older people already had some immunity to it.

The so-called ‘second wave’ in the coming winter in  the UK will be due to a combination of a new variant of seasonal flu, added to coronavirus, and no effective vaccine for either.  In the good weather of the summer and autumn people are willing to meet outside or queue to get into shops, but imagine the effect of cold and wet conditions on our willingness to do those things. This is the reason leading members of the SAGE group continue to push hygiene measures and social distancing as effective measures ‘for many months ahead’.

Other news in the past two weeks.

  • A support package for performing arts and venues was announced and welcomed, but there are still many who will not survive and thousands of performers and technicians who rely on seasonal income are outside the scheme.
  • The environmental damage caused by careless disposal of billions of pieces of PPE that contain ‘single use plastics’ had added to the amount of micro-plastics in our oceans and on land. Much of the PPE should be classed as ‘clinical waste’ and incinerated but personal masks and gloves are being thrown away much like other litter. The increasing use of takeaway food from restaurants has added to this.
  • Wearing of face coverings in shops is to be compulsory from 24th July, but the police are not willing (quite rightly in my opinion) to enforce the new law which is more than guidance.
  • There doesn’t appear to have been a steep increase in new cases as a result of opening of pubs and restaurants and other shops.
  • There has definitely been an increase in traffic as junctions 16-19 of the M6 motorway near to us are back on the travel news with queues and accidents.
  • Gyms, swimming pools and beauty parlours can re-open.
  • Another example of ‘police brutality’ appeared on social media in England with a young white policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man. There were examples of young black couples being stopped and aggressively searched for driving in a new expensive Mercedes, and in another case for parking outside their house in a mainly white residential area.

How were weeks 16 and 17 for us?

Our main news from the past fortnight and the reason there wasn’t a separate blog for week 16 is that we have been on one of the holidays we booked last year.  A five-hour drive to a small National Trust cottage on the north Norfolk coast next to a disused windmill. It was very pleasant and great to be in a different and new place. Being self-catering and just the two of us it felt ‘normal’. Even for July the caravan park we were in was very quiet. We were not able to book a place to eat as the pubs were all booked up, and we did have to queue outside the small deli and convenience shop in the village. We walked miles of coastal path, went for two 6k runs and managed to keep social distances. We had a couple of ice creams, and ate pizza outside from a manor house with outside tables, we walked to one evening.

We visited several beaches which were busy with car parking but large enough to keep a decent distance and had clean and available toilet facilities. Alyson even managed to christen her new wetsuit with two swims in the sea, and on one of them she was joined by two grey seals sharing the same inlet.

Apart from having to plan stops on the way there and back – at a supermarket in Grantham on the way there and a farm cafe on the way back, our journeys were relatively straightforward. We noticed the extra traffic on the roads on our journey home last Friday as the official school holidays have started so it may be a different picture in the next few weeks.

 

I went to a meeting in the accountant’s office in Sale for a face to face project meeting on Wednesday 8th, and it felt strange but there were only nine of the usual 20+ people in so it was all very safe, and we managed to keep social distancing. It was much easier than holding a planning meeting via Zoom and sharing screens.

That evening I attended a church meeting via Zoom with 12 of us from across our district to look at grant funding applications. We decided that it worked so well, we would continue meeting this way in the future. It saves many of our group travelling for over an hour to an office so is ‘greener’, and we can get more people attending. It will be more pleasant than driving the narrow roads in Cheshire and Staffordshire on cold wet winter evenings.

David tried wearing his mask in a shop but declared himself feeling very claustrophobic so decided he would go shopping just once a week.

Michael has managed a few days in The Lake District in a remote cottage on his own and enjoyed early morning walks.

Stay safe everyone. 

Coronavirus week 15 – the fine line between hope and crisis…

Did we go too soon?

Most of the week has been spent anticipating the 4th of July or ‘super Saturday’, ‘Independence Day’ when the pubs, restaurants and hairdressers were allowed to reopen. Also self-catering cottages, campsites and some B&B’s along with theme parks. We were waiting an announcement on which countries people will be allowed to visit without the need to quarantine on return. There were some concerns from scientists that we were going too far too fast.

For all of the above there were some who took it as a green light to start now. Airlines had passengers off to Spain, France, Greece and whole host of other places where they had second homes or were planning to be away for many weeks. Such people clearly had enough money to ‘self-insure’ against any eventuality. Street or ‘block parties’ continued and some pubs were open early. By the time Saturday came there were camera crews and reporters ready to capture the inevitable response to cutting a bit of hair or downing a pint.

The reports appeared to be mainly positive, but watching the crowds in Soho roaming the streets on a sunny afternoon there didn’t appear to be much social distancing going on there.  As a reporter from the Associated Press put it

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, who was on patrol in the southern England city of Southampton, said it was a busy shift, one that saw officers having to deal with naked men, “happy” drunks as well as “angry” drunks. He said the shift “managed to cope” but it was “crystal clear” that those who have imbibed one too many cannot, or won’t, socially distance.

I don’t usually use swear words but that last sentence is one to which my friend Gareth from the head injury charity might reply ‘no sh*t Sherlock!’.

A few days earlier the authorities decided that one place that the pubs and hairdressers would not be opening was the city of Leicester. Due to data showing the infection rate rising alarmingly in some post codes  a ‘local lockdown’ was imposed. Many words were written about the possible causes, some speculating that the ‘hundreds’ of local small garment factories in tiny buildings that continued working were the main reason. Others said that it was the fact that the city is home to many people of Asian heritage where the culture is to live together in multi-generational households, some in areas of deprivation. It is well-known that two of the groups more susceptible to infection are minority ethnic and the elderly.

I am weary from hours of attending the Methodist Conference along with 300 others on Zoom, voting by virtually raising our hands or completing  on-screen polls. I am emotionally drained by listening to speakers on so many topics that needed our action. They all seemed so relevant. We were diverted from our agenda on the first morning by several urgent ‘notices of motion’ that altered proposed resolutions around equality diversion and inclusion (EDI). I admit to being a little annoyed, but as speaker after speaker from the LGBTQI+, transgender, black and ethnic groups, those with disabilities both visible and hidden, spoke of injustice, hatred and, even worse – indifference, I couldn’t help but be determined that action is needed.

This is about justice and inclusion and the need to work more as a church to celebrate difference. Again I was challenged to look at the EDI learning kit – but it is so much more than that. It is easy to think that living as we do in a predominately ‘white European’ town, that I am not racist. But that falls into the example heard in church so many times, ‘well we don’t have any minority ethnic people in our church so we can’t be accused of being racist’! I would now be tempted to ask, so how many disabled, homosexual or ‘gender fluid’ members are in your church or even your circuit? Is the membership or attendance representative of the area you live in?

This focus on EDI may have influenced some representatives to elect our first BAME President elect for 2021. Rev Sonia Hicks also happens to be a woman. She has great experience having served as a Circuit Superintendent in three connexions: Britain, the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and Americas and the Methodist Church in Ireland (MCI). Sonia is quoted as saying;

As a Black person born in the UK, it is a great privilege to serve the church family I love in this new way. I will do all I can to honour this choice of the Methodist Conference and enable British Methodism to celebrate our God-given diversity.

Not for the first time, the Conference elected two women to the top posts as Sonia will be joined as Vice President for 2021 by Barbara Easton, a secondary head teacher from the West Midlands.

Next up at conference was Sam Monaghan, chief executive of our charity that provides services and care homes or living in the community Methodist Homes (MHA).  They have been very visible on our news programmes as a case study for the problems in care homes. 400 residents have died so far. It was obvious that care homes were forgotten initially. I was in tears as Sam recounted the story of those losses and that of three members of staff. Our district team decided there and then that as well as EDI, MHA would be one of our priorities for the year. One of our group with homes nearby said that some church members had commented that it is more expensive to live in them. That’s partly because they are an organisation that pays its care workers the ‘real living wage’, decided by the Living Wage Foundation, rather than the national (minimum) living wage set by our government – something to celebrate not complain about.

After the main session of conference finished for the day attended (via Zoom again) a ‘fringe event’ about how our ‘bank’ Central Finance Board (CFB) were deciding which oil companies to divest themselves from, on the advice of the Joint Advisory Committee on Ethical Investment (JACEI) of which the Methodist Church is a member. There was some ‘controversy’ that we were still investing in three oil companies who were not meeting the measures set by the Paris Agreement on climate change. CFB explained that reduced returns and loss of income had to be balanced with a judgement about the companies ‘moving in the right direction’. There were also difficulties in the metrics of how to judge the companies. Change costs money, and whilst change needs to be worked through and company’s encouraged, it won’t happen overnight ( I know we don’t have time here, but I believe that science and technology will play a large part in solving climate change – it just needs investment and a push).

We spent many hours the next two days discussing long reports on important projects and issues for our church, but as time went on I got more worked up about the young people of our church who we call ‘3-generate’ pushing hard on the climate issue, and asking for CFB to overturn their decision to keep the three oil companies. This came to a head in a debate when, despite warnings from our treasurer and others that the loss of income and costs of doing so would be many hundreds of thousands of pounds and our own independent pension scheme trustees might decide to ‘disinvest from our own bank’ to seek better returns elsewhere, a notice of motion was agreed to overturn the decision. I resolved that I would speak up on the subject. Having spent many hours preparing carefully what I would say, by the time I was called to speak it was the very last part of the final session and due to overrun I had to quickly cut what I wanted to say from three minutes, to two and then one. I nearly didn’t speak but had ‘promised’ out treasurer that I would. At the last minute my printer also ran out of ink. I was very weary and tired so, instead of putting one negative point and one positive suggestion, I stumbled my way through one minute of the negative before being cut-off mid-sentence. I was shattered and devastated. The clip is on YouTube as the sessions are up there. This is a screenshot of me making my ‘speaking debut at conference’, looking distracted by trying to read what I am saying off the other screen next to my laptop.

It has only been seen by 2,734 people (mostly watching live at the time), and as far as I can tell no more since. Fortunately it is only up there until 1st August so not many more will view it!

Other news this week

  • As well as final details of the releasing the lockdown, the prime minister announced the ‘big spend’ infrastructure projects to get the UK moving again, a boost to the economy, and providing work for many of those workers who have lost their jobs in the last four months. This led to the inevitable calls to cancel the HS2 rail project to save money and the environment. People against this often quote that there is no need for people like us in Crewe to get to London 20 minutes sooner than we do now, particularly with more people working from home in the future. My response is that HS2 is not about speed but capacity. It is to get more freight off the roads and onto rail. To develop the current system to add another line or so next to current ones will take much longer, be even more disruptive and be more expensive. Just imagine the number of ‘back gardens’ you would have to destroy and the stations, bridges and signalling that would need to be altered. There are already lots of delays from upgrading the present system to current standards, not much of which does anything for capacity, but is making up for decades of underspending.
  • The list of countries we are able to travel to without going into isolation was published at the end of the week. There were 50+ on there but some confusion as some did not want a ‘reciprocal arrangement’ whereby we are able to travel to them.
  • We had one last ‘clap for the NHS’ to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of setting up the organisation. It was supposed to be for five minutes at 5 o’clock on the 5th, but there were only a few households out near us and certainly not for the full time.
  • The figures for deaths and cases kept falling, but were beginning to ‘flatten’. The average Monday to Friday official deaths were 124 this week down from 152 last. Daily cases are averaging less than 900 now. The total at the end of the week was 44,220 and average new infections are just over 500 per day.

How was week 15 for us?

Well the NHS finally appear to have got their act together and, using the new terminology, Alyson was ‘on-boarded’ on Thursday. She received her updated NHS email address on Friday, and has spent the weekend doing some final training on the system. Alyson completed the other modules around safeguarding and GDPR. Hopefully the last portion of the training will be done this week and she can arrange to choose some sessions from the roster in coming weeks.

During my time at conference Alyson did some Nordic walking at Delamere Forest having not done any since before lockdown. Normally she is part of a group but felt safe enough to go on her own and really enjoyed it. On Friday I needed to clear my head, so we spent a pleasant afternoon walking the forest tracks for 90 minutes.

Saturday saw us forming a ‘bubble’ with Michael as we went to his house to help put up a trellis for his climbing rose on the side of his shed. Alyson took the photo below and titled it ‘danger Skaife and son at work’. As I wrote a few weeks ago I am not known for my DIY skills and have not passed any on to my sons. It was a successful afternoon as Michael only hit his thumb half a dozen times with the hammer putting in the metal staples!

Michael had gone into his office in the centre of Manchester for the first time in more than 12 weeks to setup a new colleague with the IT equipment needed to work from home. He said it felt very strange with the added element of social distancing.

I will be going into an office on the outskirts of Manchester this week in order to meet Steve the director of the accountants I am doing the project for. This was the result of a Zoom meeting when I presented my report to the directors and it was agreed that rather than me try to go over all the systems and project plan remotely, it would be more efficient to be in the office, either side of a large table and share the various systems on a large screen on the wall. It will feel strange, but the company has spent a great deal of time putting ‘Covid-secure’ measures in so I am certain it will be as safe as it can be.

When I attended the weekly live-streamed service at Methodist Central Hall Westminster, I was confronted by my disastrous speech on Wednesday again. Three of the main participants had been at the conference and Rev Paul was part of the main organising technical team, and the person who probably pressed the button to let me ‘into the room’. Anthony, a local preacher and rep from the London District, had spoken well to another ‘notice of motion’ to persuade conference to do more about EDI.

Sunday was the first anniversary of Alyson’s mum’s funeral. Again we reflected on how different things were then. Not only the social distancing and the ability to at least hold some sort of tea and meet friends and relatives, but the weather a year ago was very warm too.

Stay safe, and we will see if the easing means we cross the fine line back over to the crisis side and a ‘second wave’.

Coronavirus week 14 – Not ‘the new normal’ but ‘a reorientation…’

‘So what’s the story?’….time for change

This week’s blog will be a shorter one (who shouted hurrah!) as I am busy this weekend taking part in a ‘virtual Methodist Conference’ along with 300+ other people from all over the country and the world.  The Conference met for the first time with founder John Wesley in the chair in 1744, and has convened annually in the 275 years until 2019 when I attended for the first time in Birmingham. It would be easy to characterise our church as ‘old fashioned’ and living in the past, but the first thing we did was spend half an hour voting electronically via ‘raised hands’ and Zoom polls to put aside our ancient rules designed for a physical gathering. This had taken a great deal of work by our Law & Polity team in conjunction with the Charity Commission. It could have been a very short conference if we hadn’t voted unanimously to do so. Who says our church is stuck in its ways?!

A casual glance at our new President Rev Richard Teal, dressed in black robes with a white collar, the 60+ year old white male that he is, might have reinforced the old-fashioned tag. But his message that this time of lockdown must lead to a time of ‘reorientation’ – to see people and do things differently in the future, shows we are rooted in the present not the past. He used the word ‘oriented’ to describe the way we felt just a few months ago, comfortable in our situation, and the example of his feelings seeing his new grandchild for the first time to emphasise the emotions that existed at the time. Next he talked about feeling ‘disoriented’ during the last three months, unsure of what it means, and without many of the things which make our lives stable, including family and being part of a local church with all its traditions and routines. What we need to do next is ‘reorientation’ as a church, with the things we have learned. We are finding more people than ever wanting to be part of on-line services and gatherings, we have reached out to those who live in our area most in need – particularly those who are lonely and isolated. We need to value those who do vital work and have been underappreciated in the past.

Richard follows a President in Rev Barbara Glasson who exemplified the diverse talents we have in our ordained ministers. Barbara has spent her ministry working with people ‘on the margins’ or outside our church. In Liverpool city centre she started a group of people including those with learning disabilities, from the LGBTQ community, the homeless, and young people, who came together every week to make two loaves of bread, then gave them away to whoever wanted it. Never the same group two weeks running, the ‘Bread Church’ is still going strong. She currently directs the Touchstone Project in another city centre, Bradford, that works from a terraced house in a Muslim-Pakistani heritage area on interfaith relations. They are about to move into a refurbished pub. Barbara is a blessing in our church. With 2019 Vice President Clive we were encouraged and challenged to tell our story of faith – hence many of my blogs using their phrase ‘So what’s the story..?’.

Our new Vice President Carolyn, in her 50’s, described herself as an introvert, activist, impatient, easily bored and liable to make flippant remarks – an honest assessment of her humanity. She confessed to being uncertain about taking on such an important role, but the testimony she gave on how she got here was powerful. She described the church as part ‘mad’ – some of our members can get very worked up if people use the wrong cups, wear the wrong clothes, put papers on, or take them off, the noticeboard.  There is a whole potential for trouble around anything to do with setting out, stacking or moving chairs!  It is also part ugly – this ranges from telling visitors off when they sit in ‘someone else’s seat’, we can say the cruelest things to each other, have inappropriate comments and touching, bullying and controlling behaviour. Ministers from our overseas churches can be subjected to racist comments from our members, and homophobia is not uncommon.  This ugliness extends to some extremely serious cases of abuse, which we need to continually guard against.

Carolyn’s hope is that the best of the work we do is really good and awesome; helping the weakest in society, and through our overseas relief and development charity, All We Can, those in poorer countries. She wants to use the year meeting with local churches and encouraging us to use our gifts to the utmost.

It is a very different conference this year, but our group of 8 local Chester & Stoke District representatives are keeping in touch, and helping each other during debates via a WhatsApp group.  We won’t be able to hold the deep and passionate debates where speakers come forward to give different views, but we will be reviewing some important reports and committing millions of pounds of funding to important mission and outreach projects. We will also do the ‘mundane and routine’ business such as approving accounts, membership of committees and working parties. There is a sadness that the vital debates we held last year, and the provisional legislation needed, to make us a more inclusive church that recognises a wide-variety of relationships as valid, will not be completed as it was felt the format would not allow the ‘deep personal conferring needed’. Those in single sex relationships are already welcomed, and can hold any position in Methodism, but will have to wait until the conference of 2021 to find out if they can marry in our churches.

Our ministers in training are usually ‘ordained’ on Conference Sunday, but this year they had to make their promises on Saturday via Zoom as the first part, but will have to wait until we can get back into churches to have the physical ‘laying on of hands’ in the special service with friends and family. After one of the candidates made her promise from home our chair Helen sent a message on WhatsApp saying ‘we need to get Natalie into our district’, prompted by a framed message on the wall in Natalie’s house that read ‘Gin is my saviour’!

In the conference last year we learned that language is so important, not only in what is said but how it is said. Hence my wish not to use the term ‘new normal’ for our post-Covid society but the hope that, using Richard’s word we will ‘re-orientate’ ourselves. This week with the ‘White Lives Matter’ banner flown over a premier league match we learned again this lesson of use of language.

With cases not falling as fast and the death rate levelling off to about 150 per day, there is concern that the ‘welcomed’ easing of lockdown has sent the message that ‘it’s all over, we can have a party’. Scenes at ‘block parties’ in London, the celebrations in Liverpool after their team won the Premier League title after a 30-year wait, and overcrowding on the beach at Bournemouth during a very warm spell, raised fears of a second spike of infections. And all that before the pubs open on 4th July. Add alcohol to the mix and arguments over what constitutes ‘one metre plus’ in crowded pubs will lead, as one punter said, ‘to even more fights on a Friday night’! 

I understand some of the reasons, but in my opinion it says a lot about our country that we work hard to get the pubs open, but not the gyms and swimming pools. Judging by the photo on the front page of one newspaper this morning, Boris Johnson clearly thinks an office floor is all that is need to become ‘as fit as a butcher’s dog’. Although I am not sure wearing a suit and tie is recommended gym wear?

We really are at a ‘turning point’ or maybe looking over a precipice with the virus. Infections are reducing, deaths at least leveling out, and there are signs of hope. Yet scientists keep telling us that there is no sign of the virus just dying out and it will be with us at some level for ‘years to come’. The next three months and how we as individuals react will be critical to the future path of the virus, even more than the past 14 weeks of lockdown.

We need to re-orientate our country if there is not to be a pandemic of unemployment. In my less optimistic times I worry about a complete breakdown of society as those in work continue to regain wealth, but those in lower paid jobs or no jobs get poorer and poorer – or am I kidding myself, as that has been the case for decades?

Other news this week

  • The daily briefings came to an end on Tuesday with the announcement of the next stage of easing, adding to the ‘its all over’ feeling. Those who are shielding were told that they could leave the house at the same time. There is uncertainty and real fear among some. It may be that the presence of the virus is such that on average you need to meet 1,700 people before you interact with someone who carries the virus, but the effect if you are the unlucky winner of that particular lottery is no less devastating if you are vulnerable.
  • With the briefings ending, you have to work hard to find the daily new cases and death figures. The four days figures Tuesday to Friday were 154, 149, 186, 100  and the total is 43,550 and the average new daily cases is about 900 which is at least moving in the right direction. Globally we passed 10 million confirmed cases and  500,000 deaths.
  • At the weekend it was announced that from the 6th July we will be able to go to some European countries via so-called ‘air corridors’, meaning that on return there will be no requirement to go into two weeks’ quarantine.
  • Infections in the US are continuing to rise at a dramatic pace and President Trump is still in denial, with his senior team appearing increasingly uncomfortable trying to defend the indefensible. It is such a large country and a major part of the world economy, even beyond the personal impact the loss of over 125,700 of its citizens.
  • World number one tennis player Nova Djokovic arranged a short tour of his native Serbia, and Croatia in which there was little attention paid the social distancing or ‘covid security measures’. Djokovic himself got the disease as did his wife and several of the organising team. He is a self-declared ‘anti-vaxxer’, an area I plan to explore in a later article as the ‘conspiracy’ theorists and those who ignore science facts are dangerous for the rest of us.

How was week 14 for us?

It didn’t start well as on Monday Alyson was seriously ill with sickness and stomach upset. At first I did wonder if she had caught Covid-19 from working in the pharmacy on the Saturday. It turned out to be a reaction to a new type of antibiotic she was taking.  It was the first time in 93 days that she hadn’t been on our exercise bike and her Wii Fit.  We had to cancel our trip to meet friends from Shrewsbury the next day for a walk around a lake at a park halfway between us. It was a gloriously sunny day and such a shame.

The weather stayed hot and sunny and by Thursday when Alyson finally got to meet three former work colleagues in our garden, we needed to put up the gazebo we had bought specially, not for the rain, but so that they could sit in the shade. It was the hottest day of the year at 30 degrees.  

The opening of self-catering accommodation on 4th July means that our holiday at a National Trust cottage in a remote area of Norfolk is back on. It will be good to get away even if we can’t visit some of the places we planned to. It will be a change of scenery and walks along coastal paths. I admit to glancing at the availability of villas in Spain, Crete and Croatia when the air corridors were announced, but Alyson is a bit more cautious and is waiting for the ‘second spike’ and what happens when the ‘winter flu’ season starts again.

I continued to do my local parkruns twice a week and am feeling the benefits both in some weight loss, and clearing my mind of confusion.

We had a meeting of our head injury charity trustees via phone and the figures I had prepared as treasurer showed that our reserves have increased.  There really has been great support for small charities like ours who can’t hold fundraising events. We have been fortunate with the grants we have applied for – and received. Apart from the National Lottery the money we have received is from local trusts and benefactors wanting to support Cheshire-based charities.  We have not furloughed our two employees, as the work they do supporting members who were socially isolated even before the restrictions caused by the virus, is vital. We too will continue with ‘reorientation’ of our services, taking some of the ‘virtual coffee mornings’ and chat rooms forwards to reach those who haven’t wanted to attend physical meetings even in normal times.

Alyson’s hairdresser called to ask if she wanted an appointment in the first few days of opening. I am getting used to her long hair and she doesn’t want it taken back to where it was, just the fringe tidied up. I love the haircuts Alyson gives me with my trimmers and not sure I will ever go back to paying for one!

Although there was no formal Conference Service this year, our new President and Vice President joined the service at Westminster Central Hall via Zoom. Richard’s sermon was about John Wesley’s drive for Methodists to strive for ‘personal holiness’, but to live out the gospel we proclaim via what he called ‘social holiness’. This is a radical, active care for those in society who need it. Richard talked about the last letter Wesley ever wrote being to William Wilberforce supporting the abolition of slavery. He worked in the desperate slums of London where he saw people in extreme poverty continue to work and help others. Richard used a modern-day example of this social holiness by telling of a member in his circuit in rural Yorkshire, inspired by her faith to help the local food bank and deliver to the housebound and isolated in her community. 

Vice President Carolyn led us in prayers for those who are broken-hearted, worried about the virus, struggling with loneliness and living in conditions where social distancing is impossible. For countries where health systems are overwhelmed and asked that we use our social holiness to do what we can.

We finished with video messages from our sister churches around the world from, Bolivia, Rwanda, Australia, The Caribbean, and Italy. As Methodists we adapt one of  Wesley’s famously sayings ‘the world is our parish’.

Keep safe and let’s see what the next week brings us.

Coronavirus week 13 – The best and worst of the NHS – the old normal is back…

C22H29FO5 – the wonder drug

As it is nearly 40 years since I was awarded a BA(Hons) in Chemistry, I think I can be forgiven for not being able to give the modern name for dexamethasone. This is the drug announced this week used to treat patients with Covid-19 resulting in reduced deaths for those receiving oxygen or on mechanical ventilators.

Nomenclature has changed since I taught chemistry for five years in the mid-80s. Looking back at the literature of the time it was called 9α-fluoro-16α-methylprednisolone or 6α-methyl-9α-fluoroprednisolone, but either way even having done a biochemistry module I am not sure I would have known it was a steroid derivative of the well-known drug hydrocortisone. One of the main topics I enjoyed was organic chemistry, that of carbon compounds. Looking through the 1,280 pages of Hendrickson, Cram and Hammond’s textbook from 1977 there is no mention of it, despite being used in a clinical way since 1961. To complete the confusion that people often express when I tell them I used to teach chemistry, it is always good to have a chemical structure to describe the compound. Here are two for this drug.

The slightly more modern version on the right shows the different elements hydrogen, oxygen and fluorine as different colours and the methyl (CH3-) structures as a dark triangle. My pharmacy consultant (and wife) Alyson tells me that I was on dexamethasone for a short time in 2012. I was in hospital for 12 weeks (the time we have been locked down now) with a brain abscess, and was given it to reduce the resultant swelling of my brain.

The research on dexamethasone done in British hospitals, with volunteer patients involved in the clinical trials, has been hailed as ground-breaking. The drug has potential to save tens of thousands of lives worldwide. It must be devastating for those who have lost loved ones who may have benefited from it. This and the amazing dedication of the care staff, cleaners, physios, pharmacists, therapists, doctors, nurses, and administrators demonstrate the best of our NHS. As a country and tax payers we need to fund them to the level required. We will have a thorough review and ‘learn the lessons’, but I fear that once ‘real life’ takes over and self-interest resumes its ‘normal life’, we will forget those weeks early on when as one voice we said ‘this can’t be allowed to happen again’.

The whole system needs a thorough rethink. There have been many reviews and reorganisations over the years, and it would be natural for those who work in it to think ‘oh no not again’.  The NHS needs rebuilding from the ground up, and possibly renaming. Before Covid-19 I think most people thought of the NHS mainly as the hospitals and local surgeries. In latter years, and certainly during the crisis, there have been concerns that care homes, mental health services, and some social care is linked to the NHS. Many people comment on ‘private business’ not getting involved in our health system as a bad thing. Well I have news for them, much of what we think of are ‘private businesses’. Community pharmacies which I worked in for over 20 years and Alyson has worked in for 40 now, are private limited companies owned mostly by pharmacists but some by medical wholesalers. The same is true of almost every doctor’s surgery who are businesses of doctors setup as a partnership of lead GPs who employ other GPs to help them. These private businesses operate as ‘contractors’ and are paid by Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), itself only renamed in January 2018.  They are paid a rate for their services, whether that’s seeing patients, running clinics or dispensing prescription or carrying out medicine use reviews that is negotiated by their professional bodies with DHSC. It should not be a surprise that negotiating with what is in effect a ‘monopoly’ supplier is not one that leads to mass riches. What does surprise those doctors who visit pharmacies or chat to owners is unlike their partnerships, DHSC pays nothing towards premises or staffing costs of pharmacy businesses, or pay for the holding of large amounts of drug stocks. And don’t even get me on the subject of Dispensing Doctor practices – people who can write a prescription if they have too much stock of a particular drug, or choose the one that’s best for their business rather than the patient.

‘Business’ and the idea of accountability and competition has been part of the health service for many years, and now we have ‘Trusts’ who are independent organisations running services at a local or regional level. They contract to suppliers and surgeries, pharmacies and ‘buy in’ other services from blood and organ donation services, laboratory services and a host of other clinical ones. There are companies who contract for IT projects, finance, property building and maintenance, catering, cleaning etc. This started when I was still in pharmacy 20 years ago and even then I could see the problems of having local GPs on trusts. As with teachers and risk assessments I wrote about in an earlier blog, most GPs are not businesspeople and they can’t be blamed for conflicts of interest between their business and that of patients and other contractors.

Many governments have presided over reforms but the last major one by the coalition government in 2010 and overseen by Andrew Lansley has proven to be disastrous. Even before starting it drew criticism from a lot of areas. The idea of giving even more power to GPs and frontline staff and increased ‘competition’ on one level might seem like a good one, but in reality it led to a mix of systems and lack of any central accountability. The devolving of the social care and public health issues to local government foundered as the secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, cut the budgets under the guise of ‘austerity measures’. The well-publicised ‘scandals’ with Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust and others in care homes can be laid at the lack of oversight on patient safety.  The organisation Public Health England (PHE) was formed as a result of abolishing Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs), and at the time several directors warned that this would compromise our ability to ‘fight any future pandemic’. SHA’s would have been able to lead on organising the local response and would have people on the ground able to conduct a ‘track and trace’ system. Andrew Lansley stepped down from government in 2015 and was rewarded for his efforts with a seat in the House of Lords.

Jeremy Hunt was the secretary of health who ignored the results of ‘Operation Cygnus’ in  October 2016 used to check the resilience of the NHS to respond to a pandemic (albeit one of influenza). As widely reported at the start of this pandemic, this led to a failure to replenish our stockpiles of PPE, antiviral drugs and ventilators. It is shocking to see him in recent weeks, as the now chair of the parliamentary health and social care select committee, taking the government to task over their failure on issues he was responsible for. When he was elected by MPs to this role in January there was a feeling that this conflict of interest might stop him questioning too much. It’s extraordinary to see the exact opposite happening, but his ability to wipe clean his own responsibility is equally unbelievable.

Andrew Lansley promised a ‘bottom up’ review but ended up with more ‘top down’ structures in place and setting up a whole series of ‘independent bodies’ to monitor things.

Several people have expressed surprise that hospices receive so little funding from DHSC and other government bodies that they have to rely on local fundraising and charitable status to continue. This was put in the spotlight early in the current crisis when fundraising stopped and no provision was forthcoming to help with PPE. If a national health service is supposed to cater for us from ‘cradle to grave’, what has gone so wrong that patients and their families who are facing the real end of the health system are left to donations and sales from charity shops for the provision of care to their loved ones. Another part of the health service that I have experience of, and which has been neglected are rehabilitation units. It seems Covid-19 is an illness that takes a terrible toll on survivors, with months of aftercare needed to even walk again. Many weeks on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma leads to mental health issues as well as physical weakness.

NHS IT provision, which I had some experience of when trying to implement the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) in our pharmacy branches in 2005/6 was one riven with problems. With the help of our wholesalers and investment in NHS broadband we got all 50 branches setup just as we were sold to the Co-op. Alyson continued working in branch and even now, 14 years on, the system is not fully implemented and looks unlikely to be any time soon. Only recently can pharmacists see a very small amount of information held nationally on any patient who comes into their branchwhen they are away from the place they live. I know from personal experience that my local hospital, 15 miles from the one in another county and a separate trust where I was treated for my brain injury, can’t access any of my scans or records. This is why I have a lever arch folder with all my records and several CDs of my scans/x-rays that I can take in should it happen again.

As predicted by my sons in a blog six weeks ago NHS IT, or NHSX as it is now called, was criticised this week for the failure to deliver the NHS Test & Trace app, and are considering reverting to the Google/Apple model. As my chair of district tweeted;

In all the ‘clap for carers’ and accolades given to those in the health and care systems, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone is working for the common good. In an organisation of about 1.5 million people there will be some ‘bad apples’ and strong management and administration supported by decent pay and training is needed.

Our National Health service should be as much about prevention and encouragement to live a healthy lifestyle as it is about treating us when we fall ill. The effects of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and respiratory conditions on the death rate from coronavirus demonstrates this need. The savings made from prevention should outweigh the costs of later treatment.  Education, as in many things, is vital for health outcomes as is reducing poverty.

Let’s hope the next review takes all of the factors into account and, as I wrote last week, as a country we can fund the necessary changes. Our National Health Service has become a ‘Reactive Illness Programme’ (RIP), and needs to change, and quickly.

Other news this week

  • The ‘old normal’ resurfaced in our area this week when 6,000 people attended raves in two separate areas of Manchester on Monday. Several people were stabbed, one girl allegedly raped and local people had to clear up the mess after everyone had left.
  • Crime seems to be on the increase (or at least being more reported) and terror is back on our streets with the stabbings in Reading this weekend.
  • There is more talk of reducing the social distancing requirements to one metre to get hospitality and self-catering holiday accommodation open.
  • Dame Vera Lynn died this week at the age of 103. She was called the ‘forces sweetheart’ during World War Two and had shared her thoughts during the current crisis and her song was echoed in the address to the nation by our Queen when she said ‘we will meet again’.
  • The Labour Party review on the reasons for disastrous results in December’s general election was published. It didn’t make comfortable reading for members of the party like me. We must work for Labour to produce policies which chime with the need to do things differently in relation to funding the new health and social care system, tackling poverty, improving education and closing the gap between the wealthy and poorer in society.
  • The daily death announced totals continue to fall with the Monday-Friday total this week being 853 down from 1,065 last week (a fall of 20%). The total of deaths at the end of the week was 42,632.
  • With numbers seemingly under control in European countries despite some local outbreaks in Germany, I looked again at the statistics on Johns Hopkins site and there are some awful looking graphs in other areas of the world. Here are the graphs for cases in Europe;


    These show that we are over the (first?) peak of infections. The story in two countries with presidents who think it is nothing to worry about, and are trying to get their country’s open again is not so hopeful…

    and note that the scales on these are tens of thousands rather than the thousands in Europe.
    The middle and far east countries are also showing curves which are concerning, with a ‘double peak’ for Iran. The cases are in hundreds but show no signs of decreasing.

  • We need to start looking overseas again now that we are getting the UK cases down. There is concern from aid charities that helping less well-off countries will be harder now that the department for international development (DFID) and the UKAid agency has been subsumed into the Foreign Office. A move criticised by three recent former prime ministers from both Conservative and Labour.
  • The debate and protests around racism and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continued across the world.
  • I was going to write that the demonstrations and actions of climate protestors, similar to the ones for Black Lives Matters with marches and ‘direct action’ had not resurfaced, when yesterday I saw an interview with Greta Thunberg saying that she was looking forward to going back to school in Sweden, and vowing to carry on campaigning.
  • Greta’s target for criticism president Donald J Trump was back on the campaign trail with a ‘huge rally’ in Tulsa, Oklahoma where only 6,000 of a possible 19,000 seats were occupied despite over a million applications for tickets. For those who did attend there was little sign of masks or social distancing, and six of the organisers caught the virus. At the time of writing there are reports that Mr Trumps rally had been ‘turned over’ by teens and young people responding to campaigns on the Tik-Tok and K-Pop social media platforms applying for tickets then not turning up. Mr Trump said earlier in the week that a million supporters would come.

How has week 13 been for us?

Unfortunately we have another example of the ‘worst of the NHS’ in our household. Five weeks after Alyson applied to help out NHS 111 with taking phone calls from people who need to speak to a pharmacist, and after three polite chasing emails and responses from the HR team doing the ‘on-boarding’ stating that she will hear ‘in a few days’, there is still no sign of her contract or training plans. She has played her part by taking two more calls on the SOS NHS volunteering app.

We haven’t ventured to ‘non-essential shops’ yet and the crush at the Nike store in London and the lady interviewed in the Primark queue in Manchester who stated that she ‘felt like I’ve won the lottery’ didn’t pursuade us. We did go for another walk in Delamere Forest and had a picnic which was pleasant. The weather meant another postponement of meeting with friends in our garden, but we have a walk planned in a park further afield this week.

I have watched a couple of the Premier League football matches now live on ‘free tv’ and have been surprised how realistic the ‘virtual crowd noise’ is to make them seem more ‘normal’ despite empty stadiums. The  online radio commentary I heard for my team Middlesbrough was a sign of the ‘new normal’ being much like the old – we lost 3-0 and are looking at relegation again.

I had my first international Zoom with a call to our subcontractors’ office in India with the person who helps on the IT project I am doing. We have had training sessions with the team from our district who are attending the Methodist Conference in a week’s time. With over 300 representatives, Zoom will be in the form of a webinar where we can only see the person presenting and another speaker who wants to add to the debate. Voting will by the raising of a virtual hand or completing a poll on the screen, so the feedback on numbers should be much quicker than the usual manual count of raised hands in the conference hall.  I will write more about this next week. The conference service on Sunday will be at my now ‘virtual home church’ of Methodist Central Hall, Westminster in London.

Keep safe and let’s hope there is a safe further easing of lockdown in the coming week.

 

 

Coronavirus week 12 – what I have (not) done…

Looking to a more just society…

Even though lockdown has been eased and we are allowed to do more things than before, my week has been dominated by planned activities that I have not done.

Alyson gave me a lovely thoughtful present to surprise me on my birthday in April. It was something that she knows I had looked at, but dismissed as probably too expensive and not fitting in with our plans at the time. This weekend should have been the ‘London Series’ of Major League Baseball (MLB) where teams from the US play a two-game series at the ex-Olympic Stadium, now the London Stadium and home to Premier League team West Ham United. The two teams due to play were the St Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, who play in the Central Division of the National League(NL) so it would be one game in a long-standing rivalry.

The 2019 series, the first one to showcase MLB overseas by playing in the UK, was another rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox of the American League (AL) East Division. Some readers may know that I have been a supporter of another AL East team the Toronto Blue Jays since I first saw them in the early 80’s and have been to matches each time we have been to Toronto since, including last September. So, it would have been great to see a live game in London, but the virus put a stop to that.

I am sure more people would have been looking forward to the next thing I have (not) done this week – the Euro 2020 football championships. Friday would have been the first match in Rome where Turkey would have taken on Italy at 10pm UK time. Saturday would have seen Wales play and today England would have played Croatia at Wembley. I had put all the matches into the calendar on my computer which I do months before each major tournament in case people try to arrange church or charity meetings. Not that I wouldn’t go if they did, I just want to be able to inform them, and to have the chance not to do so!

The third activity I have (not) done this week like the 11 weeks before is my regular Saturday morning Parkrun at 9am in Delamere Forest. I have written about Parkrun before if you look back at posts, starting in April 2016 when I did my first run and first post, to February 2018 when I did my 50th, and last October when I did a sponsored 10k the week after completing my 100th. I really miss the run, the team of volunteers and other runners. During lockdown I have done a 5k run on Wednesday and a longer 6.1k on Saturday morning. The great thing is that I have come first every time, and today was my second fastest time of the 12 weeks.

However, the one thing I have (not) done and want to write about the most is an event I chose not to go to on Tuesday, despite being successful in my application to attend. We met up with Alyson’s sister and husband in Cannock Chase Forest park for a lovely walk and a ‘socially distanced picnic’ sitting either end of a felled tree. There were a lot of people around, but it was easy to keep a safe distance on the miles of paths. There was a takeout service from the cafe and there were plenty of Portaloo facilities which were clean and had plenty of hand sanitiser.

The event I chose not to go to was a Zoom conference with the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds and other MPs and Labour Party members. It was to discuss policies that feed into the National Policy Forum consultation taking place this summer. The agenda looked an extensive one;

This policy discussion is on the subject of the future of social security after coronavirus and we would like to hear your thoughts and ideas on the questions below: 

  1. What has the crisis taught us about the role of social security in protecting the most vulnerable in society and the gaps in the current system?
  2. To what extent has the crisis changed public perceptions of social security? How can we build on any changes to ensure wider public support for the system?
  3. To what extent should social security be a universal entitlement available to all?
  4. How can social security support self-employed workers?
  5. What role can social security play in addressing inequalities and poverty in society?

Many of these were topics I wanted to write about when I started this blog and if you look back to the first one on the 5th April there is a section on Economics where I ask

  • How we use our wealth to best effect for what both main political parties agree should be ‘for the many not the few’.
  • How corporations, public bodies, small and medium businesses, wealthy individuals, and every individual supports each other.
  • Do we need a fundamental rethink and ‘reordering’ of past conventions?

So it would have been extremely interesting to have been in the session and one of the ‘breakout room’ where we would have had the opportunity to discuss in smaller groups with other MPs acting as leaders and Johnathan popping in to listen and answer questions.

The brief paper that we needed to read before attending the forum set out the problems with the current system, many of which were there before the crisis, but have been highlighted in recent weeks. It acknowledged the steps the present government has taken in the furlough, business rates, business loan and help for the self-employed, which have been unprecedented in recent times. The paper also pointed out the issues that need a fundamental rethink.

I admit to having no formal economic training and acknowledge that the taxation and benefits system for any ‘developed’ country is complex. A balance between ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, ‘incentive’, ‘reward’, ‘ethics’, ‘environment’, the fast-moving needs of the ‘labour market’ and dealing with factors arising from being an interconnected world and ‘globalisation’. But you don’t need to be any sort of expert to know that the present system is failing. It fails not just those in real poverty and need, but large numbers of working people who are claiming benefits and slipping into poverty as housing  and other costs rise at a time when wages are rising slowly.

To pick up on the current mood, the effects of the virus and ‘Black Lives Matter’, the present system already discriminates against the BAME community, those who we now call ‘heroes’ in low-paid but vital jobs, many of who are women, the disabled, young people coming out of education trying to get employment and into a home of their own. After the virus, these impacts will only increase.

In mid-February I ordered the book below, prompted by a discussion we were having in one of our church study groups with Richard who worked at the local Credit Union. I had been reading the second one for the last year. Both have something to add to the conversation we would have had at the forum and for a policy fit for the 21st century.

 

Richard’s statement about what we could do to help those who he sees at the Credit Union was simple. ‘As one of the richest countries in the world, it’s time we paid everybody in the country a basic income’. The other book explains how our current taxation system is exploited by global corporations and wealthy individuals, using tax-havens and false reporting of money flows to avoid paying a fair share to support society. This can be to the point of criminality by those who setup the money markets to manipulate it in ways that even governments don’t understand, and for which there is little transparency. Radical change is needed considering the ideas in both books to reform the economy.

A Basic Citizen’s Income

There is not enough room to explain all the ideas around this and I suspect most people’s reaction would be ‘well it is a nice idea, but it will never work’.   The details need to be worked out after a full debate and explanation. The amount needs to be considered but the ‘simplicity’ of it, in my opinion, is unarguable.

Every citizen who reaches working age will receive a basic income for them to use as they wish.  It is unconditional and nonwithdrawable (with higher amounts for older people and smaller amounts for children). It will be paid by the government directly into people’s bank account on a regular basis with no means testing at all. This immediately cuts out whole swathes of bureaucracy or ‘red tape’ so disliked by many politicians, it allows citizens who live in the present world characterised as a ‘precariat’ of uncertain income and changing jobs frequently, quickly slipping into needing help. There would be no need for Universal Benefit as everyone would have some income and could build a ‘reserve’ to see them through short periods of unemployment or sickness (or lack of income caused by a situation like the present virus). It could, over time, replace the need to pay a state pension. It will give the ability to those who want to pursue higher education the means to subsidise that, those who want to setup a small business to do so, and those in work to help others less fortunate or to pool ‘unneeded income’ to give a hand up to other family members. All such income would be taxable.

It needs bringing in with another pillar of a fair society – education. I can already hear people suggesting that it is a recipe for ‘scroungers and wasters’. Children and families will be taught basic money management and the way the economy works. Banks would have to change their model to help people manage their money well, and stop them from getting into debt through bad choices.

There is not enough room in this blog to explain it all, but I hope the chapter titles in Malcolm Torry’s book will prompt you to think about it more;

  1. Imagine….
  2. How did we get to where we are now?
  3. The economy. work and employment
  4. Individuals and their families
  5. Administrative efficiency
  6. Reducing poverty and inequality
  7. Is it feasible?
  8. Options for implementation
  9. Pilot projects and experiments
  10. Objections
  11. Alternatives to a Citizen’s Basic Income

Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society

This is the subtitle of the second book I read a review in The Methodist Recorder and asked for it as a Christmas present. I have not read it all but the parts I have made me realise that the reason a universal basic income might not happen, is the people who setup our complex financial structures are also those who control and exploit it.  Although not formally setup until March 2003 the Tax Justice Network (TJN) has its roots in the almost total lack of research as to what lead to extreme poverty in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America as money flowed out from these countries under the guise of ‘aid’ to the financial centres in Geneva, New York and London via a complex network of offshore companies and trusts located in secrecy jurisdictions. They exploited the fact that many of the countries they were ‘helping’ had poor governance and taxation systems and officials willing to be corrupted by the promise of wealth such people could only dream of.  One of the writers of the book has worked ‘on the inside’ and struggled with what he saw in terms of ‘transfer pricing’, tax havens and ‘illicit financial flows’ as part of a team working for accountants Deloitte Touche and as Economic Advisor to the States of Jersey and alongside the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He witnesses what he calls the ‘dark arts of tax havenry’ and relations with Hong Kong, Jersey, London, and Singapore. Every time he questioned something with senior people, lecturers for his degree or powerful people in government, it was side-stepped and he realised he had wandered into an ‘economic blind spot’. TJN is now an established organisation working with partners in the charity sector and other likeminded organisation to campaign for transparency and information and changes to the global economic system. Not easy when you have the full weight of large financial institutions funding lobbyists and vested interests.

Again, there is not enough space here to write in full, but the book is in the form of individual articles/papers written by a variety of authors. I urge you to read some of them and here is a selection;

  • What is necessary is possible
  • Pinstripe Outlaws
  • The Africa Question: Where Do All the Profits Go?
  • Tax Justice and the Oil Industry
  • Tax Competition: A case of Winner Takes All?
  • Revealed: How Multinational Companies Avoid the Taxman
  • Making the Link:  Tax, Governance and Civil Society
  • The City of London: A State Within a State
  • Harnessing Land Value as a Green Tax
  • How Much Should the Rich Pay in Taxes
  • Didn’t they notice?
  • Human Rights and Just Taxation
  • Public Duty, Private Gain: Professional Ethics and Tax

The one highlighted in red I found the most shocking as it exposes the City of London as the largest enablers of tax havens in the world. In four short pages written 11 years ago it explains why it is unlikely that any UK Government will agree to such a radical policy as transparency in tax avoidance, and how the narrative against a citizens income could be stopped in its tracks by ‘those who have the real power’.

Other news this week

  • The Black Lives Matters protests continued and after the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue last week and the graffiti daubed on Winston Churchill’s in Parliament Square, a debate started on which others should be removed. This, like most topics I have written about, is why education is so important. The historical context of our ‘famous’ people and the benefit to society needs to be explained and the flaws of whatever size or nature drawn out. In some cases this could lead to public statues being placed into museums and others to have information that gives both sides of the stories. None of this should take focus away from what we need to do now and in the future to change society for the better.
    There is no doubt that the violence on Saturday by so called ‘protectors of the statues’ was nothing more than extremist thuggery and anarchists and aggression towards the police. Many of the young men involved are clearly missing the chance to fight other football hooligans in the (not) Euro 2020 Championships.

  • I admit to being taken aback when one of my ‘local heroes’ Captain James Cook’s statue in Whitby as well as those in Australia. In the several books I have read of Cook’s life story it is clear that he is an example of someone from Middlesbrough born to a labourer who worked his way up from farmhand, to shop assistant, to junior sailor in the merchant navy, and became a senior captain in the Admiralty and who led surveys of large parts of the then ‘undiscovered continents’ and routes between them. These were ‘different times’ but Cook was known to treat his crews ‘relatively well’ and never lost one from the diseases of the time.  He is honoured in his hometown with schools and the major hospital named after him. The other parkrun I sometimes do when I am in the north east starts just outside the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in a park in Marton next to the place where he was born in what was at the time little more than a shack and is no longer there. The cottage the family is supposed to have lived in when they moved to Great Ayton was moved to Melbourne in Australia in 1934.
    I completely understand the objection by indigenous first nation Australians that James Cook ‘discovered Australia’ and the suggestion by them that 26th January the ‘Australia Day’ national holiday should be renamed ‘Invasion Day’/ ‘National Day of Mourning’ / ‘Survival Day’ and the colonial nature of the planting of the flag on Australian soil by Co0k’s fleet that day should be set in historical context.

    But as far as being involved in the slave trade, there is nothing of that in Cook’s story that I have read, but it is true that he killed Maori warriors on arrival in New Zealand and proceeded to subdue the then self-governing people, misunderstanding their initial ‘welcome’ as one of a threat to his ship and crew. Similarly an incident of kidnapping a king on Hawaii that lead ultimately to Cook’s death was a tragic episode.
  • The protests in the US continued and another unarmed black man was shot  by a white policeman. Another name added to the ever growing list.
  • Education has been to the fore again this week. A government that put a lot of energy into the building of new hospitals and getting retired medical staff to return, appears unwilling to do a similar thing for our schools. There is no sign of building temporary classrooms or taking over unused public buildings or exhibition centres to setup places to help the generation that is missing out on six months of formal education, particularly those with no facilities at home. A straw poll of retired teachers I know shows that some might be willing to go back and help in the short term with classes to make up for lost time. As someone who left teaching 34 years ago I am not sure my ‘skills’ are up to the job or my subject knowledge of Chemistry and Mathematics!
  • The official number of total deaths announced at the daily briefings continued to fall gradually as measured by the 7-day average. The figures for Wednesday to Saturday were 151, 202, 181, 36 and on Sunday the total stood at 41,698.
  • The 14-day quarantine for people arriving at airports was introduced but other than airlines complaining there was little news on the effectiveness and no numbers on how many people had been followed up or fined.
  • In the coming week ‘non-essential’ shops who have put social distancing measures and are self-declared ‘Covid Secure’ can re-open.
  • As I write Boris Johnson, pushed by some Conservative MPs are looking to reduce the social distancing from two metres. It seems ironic that many who were in favour of ‘taking back control’ from the EU are now quoting many countries from who are using shorter distances than we are. It would be interesting to know if their views would be the same if a declaration by the EU that all member states should adopt a distance of one metre had been given when we were still part of the bloc and operating a ‘different standard? I am not sure how those retailers who have already spent millions of pounds (much of it grants from local government) on reorganising layouts and putting signage in, will feel when the advice changes again in three weeks as hospitality starts opening.
  • Today is also the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster. We saw the tower covered in screening as we drove through London last August. It was a larger example of the covered statues this weekend. At the time there was much talk about how the lower paid and largely ethnic minority key workers who live there had been forgotten by the wealthy borough next door. Three years on this seems to have been dropped from the agenda. Sound familiar? This and the violence in the centre of London makes me less optimistic that we will ‘learn the lessons’ and start being kinder to each other. 

So how has week 12 been for us?

Apart from our walk in Cannock Chase Forest, Alyson has continued daily walks and I joined her for one on Friday which was also the anniversary of her mum’s death 12 months ago. We walked on a footpath through fields of corn and stopped between the showers to listen to the sounds of birds singing. The sadness of the anniversary was tempered by feelings of gratitude that this time last year we didn’t have to cope with a pandemic, and the associated issues of visiting care homes, organising the funeral, and sorting the sale of the family house in the north east.

Alyson took another trip to the garden centre to buy a yellow rose to plant as a reminder of her mum who loved roses and the colour yellow. The garden is starting to look a blaze of colours as other plants flower and grow.

The birdlife in our garden continues to become more varied and this week as Alyson was exercising on the bike in our conservatory she saw a buzzard land briefly, and today a green woodpecker visited. The buzzard probably explained the headless body and scattered feathers from a blackbird we found on Monday.

With the announcement of ‘household bubbles’ where single person households can pair with others without social distancing and even stay overnight, we asked our son David if he wanted to travel from Bath to see us. He declared himself ‘happy in his own bubble’! He has managed to go for an open water swim and some more rowing.

Zoom coffees have continued and I attended my weekly streamed service from Methodist Central Hall, thankfully not affected by the violence just outside in Parliament Square. I am not sure that any statues of our founder John Wesley are on the ‘hitlist’ of those for removal, but like all of us his life was not without flaws. There is a statue in what was a British Colony of Georgia in the southern states of America. In 1736 John and his brother Charles travelled to the newly formed parish Savannah, as Anglican High churchmen with the primary aim of evangelising to the Native Americans. This was not successful and an incident with a young lady who he had a failed relationship with, and then banned from taking communion did not go down well.

Nevertheless, John Wesley went on to found a movement that, as as I written before, was a reforming one with social principles and members who were key in the Trade Unions and Labour Party. I try to live by his rules on wealth which sparked my interest in the two books in this blog. Those rules were;

Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

Stay safe and let’s see what the next seven days brings. Two things are certain;

  • we will (not) be rushing to join the queues in the shops that are opening.
  • Alyson will definitely (not) be watching the restart of live sport in the form of Premier League and Championship football!

 

A Tribute to my Uncle Wilf – a hero of The Evacuation of Dunkirk.

It has been said that a person only truly dies once somebody mentions your name for the last time. When we visited the Tutankahmen Exhibition in London in February, I remember this coming up as we walked around. Many of the pharaohs erased the names and monuments of their predecessors in the hope that people would forget them.

Uncle Wilf would have been 106 if he was alive today. I never met him or even knew of his existence until about 15 years ago. But this blog is to keep his memory alive. My mum showed me a letter she had received from the Museum of D-Day Aviation in Shoreham about her brother Wilf. This blog is published 80 years to the day that Wilf died. The researcher at the museum found that Wilf was a member of 43 Squadron and he wrote

43 Squadron was a front line fighter squadron flying Hurricanes and rated the best, and was to give cover during the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Your brother was killed flying back after another sortie – the third that day – by a sneak and chance attack by German Fighters and his Hurricane N2615, crashed 4 miles S. of Shoreham. His body washed ashore at Shoreham on June 15th…..his body was sent for burial at the family request to Middlesbrough  

We have just celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation between 26th and 31st May 1940. We don’t know how many sorties my uncle flew during that time, but we know that only 9 days later he was dead. He was 26 years old.

I never knew why my mum would get upset on Remembrance Day but I think it was because she remembered the sacrifice of her brother. When we were clearing my parents’ house after dad died in 2017 I found a note of a talk mum had given to her local church on Remembrance Day when she spoke about her brother Wilf. She had written

I have in my possession a little book that was among Wilf’s returned belongings and given to him in 1931 by the leader of the Young Men’s Class at our church, called ‘The Greatest Thing in the World’….It is based on 1 Corinthians Chapter 13: The Greatest Thing being LOVE…I never heard my mother utter a word of bitterness, and just after the war my brother who was 17yrs old died suddenly of painless pneumonia. She used to say ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.’ It was only when I had sons of my own that I realised how she must have felt. When they went to university/college I missed them but reminded myself that at least I wasn’t sending them to war.

I am one of those sons, and as I spoke with mum about the letter she started to cry. She told me that she loved her older brother and looked forward to the times he would come home from the RAF and play with her. She called him ‘my Wilfy’. He bounced her on his knee. It must have been difficult for a seven year old to comprehend what had happened when she learned of his death.

Then to lose another brother a few years later a week after her 12th birthday was hard. I am not certain but I think her dad, my grandad who I also never met, died as a result of being gassed in the Great War. All three are buried with grandma at a family plot in Linthorpe Cemetery. After mum died we took dad to try and find the grave, but didn’t succeed. I have found a document in mum’s possessions about it and know the plot number so will go and put flowers on it one day.

Wilf left Middlesbrough and his job as a ‘Storeman’ aged 16 to join the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice, or as a ‘boy’ 5ft 3ins with a 31 inch chest as his record states. By the time he was commissioned as an 18 year old man he had grown in height by 2 inches and put an extra half inch on his chest. I have a copy of his service record or ‘Service and Discharge’ as it is called. This was all the family got as there were so many killed at that time Commanding Officers didn’t have time to write details of how their men died. I am not sure grandma ever knew, and it was only mum visiting the museum when she was on the way to a holiday that led to this being done. I know she didn’t get anywhere at first and it was only on receiving a follow-up letter asking for more details that the story came to light. Wilf was trained as a Flight Rigger, someone who worked on the airframe and cables, not the engines.  He rose through the ranks and started a year’s pilot training as there was a shortage of pilots as the build up to war started. He passed the training on New Year’s Eve 1939. He was with several other squadrons in Hornchurch in Essex and then Manston in Kent. In the run up to what would become The Battle of Britain he was posted to 25 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex using a new type of radar for night interception. As losses of fighter pilots became high, pilots like Wilf in lighter bomber squadrons were moved to fill the gaps. Wilf’s final posting was to 43 Squadron based at Tangmere in West Sussex where later Wing Commander Douglas Bader would be stationed in 1941.

I am now the keeper of Uncle Wilf’s possessions and there is also Bible inscribed ‘With best wishes from mother to Wilf 1930’. I suspect it was for his 16th birthday. Mum’s family, like my dad’s were Methodists and worshiped at Woodlands Road church. Mum and dad met at the youth club and were married at the church. 

We hoped to visit Shoreham to see the rose the museum promised to plant in Wilf’s honour, but that probably won’t happen this year.

Rest in peace Uncle Wilf. We will remember you.

Coronavirus week 11 – ‘I can’t breathe…’ not because of Covid-19

How many pandemics can we have at once?

When I started to draft this week’s blog the other day, the first lines were about other news breaking in, and that for the first time in weeks it wasn’t part of the first headline. I suggested that even the Daily Briefings are getting ‘bored with themselves’, with just slides and questions rather than new announcements. By Friday Matt Hancock was on his own with no scientists. I thought that by next weekend they will be finished or once a week.  It turns out that they are going to be only on weekdays, so none this weekend. The statistics were still produced by the Department of Health and Social Care and they showed that on Saturday 204 deaths were announced and on Sunday 77 bringing the total to 40,542.

As the number of official deaths passed 40,000 it felt like a grim milestone, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures of all deaths mentioning Covid-19 is over 60,000. This week worldwide deaths passed 400,000.

The news that pushed Coronavirus off the front pages of newspapers and further down the television bulletins were protests in the US and other countries about the death of George Floyd.  George was a black American killed by a white policeman by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds, while George repeatedly said ‘I can’t breathe’. At first the Minneapolis Police Department denied there was anything untoward, but after mobile phone footage of the incident was broadcast, that was shown not to be true.  This triggered several days of protests in many of the larger cities across the US, several of which were used as cover for looting of shops and burning of public buildings.

I was particularly shocked by footage from a security camera of tens of people stripping a small family-run pharmacy in the Bronx area of New York of all of its stock including prescriptions made up waiting for patients to collect them.

The irony of many of them wearing masks to protect them from coronavirus was lost among interviews with the devastated owners, as it had taken them 14 years to build the business up in a relatively poor neighbourhood. The Rodriguez family are themselves members of a minority community.

As the protests spread out to Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’ the long-standing issue of racism that has been part of American society back to the Civil War and the Civil Rights cases in the 1960’s, was high up the political agenda once more. Protesters and some policemen went down on one knee in a reminder of the act of the policeman in Milwaukee, and an echo of the protests by black players from the National Football League (NFL) a couple of years ago. President Trump had called for them to be sacked at the time. Now he sent the National Guard to clear protestors in Washington who had gathered outside a church, and then he posed in front of the church with Bible in hand, much to the indignation of the local ministers.

The Floyd family have the services of Ben Crump an attorney who takes on high profile cases for those who need representation in the areas of unlawful death and civil rights. At the memorial service in Minneapolis he said

..it was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd. It was that other pandemic, the pandemic of racism and discrimination.

Rev Al Sharpton, a veteran of civil rights cases alongside Rev Jesse Jackson in his eulogy said it was time to stand up and say “get your knee off our necks”.

In the social media furore around the riots an interview with a former  police chief of Milwaukee appeared to show him ranting about the fact that people know the names of the last three people killed because they are black, but not the names of the last 300 killed by criminals using guns. He said there are a lot of bad policemen, but there are also a lot of unlicensed guns and he was on his way to reports of a five-year-old girl accidentally shot through the head.  The video was from 2014. The President’s son Donald Trump Jr used it to divert attention away from the race issue. The fact that the police chief was speaking after attending a meeting about the shooting of another black man Dontre Hamilton, was not mentioned.  The white officer involved was fired as he had stopped and frisked the man for no apparent reason.

Given that a record 2 million extra handguns were sold in March, many to first time gun owners, it could be that the number of Americans dying in the future from the ‘pandemic of gun ownership’, will be a high figure.

Despite the home secretary Priti Patel and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison appealing for demonstrations not to happen due to the virus this weekend, large numbers turned out in London and Sydney. Masks and gloves were handed out, but as numbers grew social distancing became an issue. This type of protests needs to be done ‘in the moment’, but it could affect the spread of the virus. So I understand those who criticise. We shouldn’t forget that in the UK we have had our own problems with ‘stop and search’ tactics of policing, and claims of ‘institutional racism’. And these things are not only apparent in police and government, but in business and housing. The scenes of disturbances around Downing Street and violence directed towards the police were shocking. During the demonstrations earlier in the week some people had defaced memorials around the Cenotaph on Whitehall.  The next morning a group of young people were filmed cleaning the graffiti off and being berated by a protestor who said ‘could you not leave it for just one day’. It turns out the ‘young people’ were cadet trainees at the Household Cavalry from barracks nearby. On Sunday in Bristol a statue of the ‘slave master’ Edward Colston was pulled down and one of the demonstrators knelt on his neck. The city is built on the wealth of the slave trade and even though Colston gave much of his wealth to charitable causes, setup schools and hospitals, there are some who think the record of their former MP was ‘sanitised’ and rewritten before the statue was erected.

On the news pictures I saw, however, most of the demonstrations were peaceful and did their best to maintain social distancing (if not the regulations about more than six people meeting). Overhead shots of demonstrations in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington in the US and Manchester in our area of the UK showed a great deal of good distancing and masks.

Australia, like America has had problems with police brutality and race and this was the focus of the protests. in 2016 David Dungay Jr an indigenous Australian man was killed whilst being restrained by police in a hospital saying those same words ‘I can’t breathe’. We saw the pictures of people talking about their frustration that yet again something happens and again nothing happens.

The last word goes to an academic on a video my cousin Janet’s husband Chris posted on Facebook. I don’t know the name of the person or anything of their background, and it was from an organisation called ‘Atheist Republic’ and appeared to be cut together from a longer one. None of that matters as it struck a chord with its simple message . The question was put ‘why do we hate’?

We hate because we are taught to hate. We hate because we are ignorant….We have been taught that there are four or five different races…there are not…there is only one race on this earth which we are all part of, and that’s the human race. But we have separated ourselves into different races so that some of us can see ourselves as superior to others….It hasn’t worked, and it is bad for everyone. It’s time to get over this business. There is no gene for racism, no gene for bigotry, you’re not born a bigot, you need to learn to be a bigot. Anything you learn you can unlearn, it’s time to unlearn bigotry. It’s time to get over this thing…and pretty soon. I am an educator…and it’s my business to lead people out of ignorance, the ignorance that you are better or worse than someone because of the amount of a pigment you have in your skin. Pigmentation of your skin has nothing to do with intelligence or your worth as a human being. It’s time to get over that.

We are struggling to find a vaccine for the coronavirus pandemic and are worried that it may take a year rather than a few months. It seems that we have been unable to find a vaccine for the pandemics of racism and gun control, or the other pandemics of hunger, poverty, and inequality which have been with us for centuries. After the coronavirus pandemic is over there could be a pandemic of unemployment, a pandemic of economic uncertainty and a pandemic of growing debt. Can we do things to ‘unlearn’ the behaviours that make them happen.

As a representative to the Methodist Conference at the end of the month (see note later on about our week), I have been asked to complete some training on ‘unconscious’ bias as part of the church’s Equality Diversity Inclusion (EDI) policies. I commit to doing so as a small step to understanding my own behaviours and to check if I need to ‘unlearn’ some attitudes.

Other news this week

  • The news that pushed coronavirus down to third place on the television bulletins was that of the German police identifying a suspect for the abduction of Madeleine McCann in 2007 and declared it a murder inquiry.  It is a story that was horrible the first time around and doesn’t get any easier each time it crops up again. I hope that the family get some certainty soon.
  • We live in an area, the north west, where the number of infections is not decreasing, and the R-number is on the unsafe value of almost 1.  The north west as defined by the government is a large area stretching from where we live in Crewe to Kendal 110 miles away on the edge of the Lake District. However, the detailed statistical tables show that in our local hospital there was only one death on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday this week, compared to deaths every day and a total of 15 the week before.
  • Crewe is a town which is dependent on the ‘health’ of one of its largest employers Bentley Motors.  Admittedly, not as dependent as it was when we moved here 40 years ago and along with the Railway Works, Rolls Royce Bentley as it was then were the main employers in the town. The announcement on Friday that nearly 25% of the 4,200 workforce were under the threat of redundancy is a blow to the local economy. This wasn’t due entirely to coronavirus but adjustments for social distancing has cut production by half in recent weeks.
  • With the government declaring two weeks quarantine on travellers coming in through airports, there was talk of  ‘air bridges’ that would allow those from some countries with lower infections not to have to do so. The airline owners are against the quarantines and some countries will not allow UK citizens to have an ‘air bridge’ with them as we are a country with a high infection rate.
  • Track, test, and trace continued to be a point of contention with Boris Johnson challenged at Prime Ministers Questions about the lack of statistics and details around this topic.
  • MPs returned to parliament and there was much discontent about having to vote by forming a queue which was over a kilometre long to walk past the Speaker to say which way they were voting. The irony was that the motion was about the type of voting that could be used if they remain away from the House of Commons due to the virus. One said it was like ‘doing the Mogg conga queuing for a ride at Alton Towers that turned out to be a little bit sh*t.’

How was week 11 for us?

Alyson took advantage of the new ‘freedoms’ to go to a garden centre 8 miles away but came back disappointed by the choice of plants and the lack of atmosphere as the main centre and shops were not open.

Alyson was delighted, however, that as we watched another week of BBC’s Springwatch we had a version going on in our garden. Visitors to the feeders included, bullfinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, long-tailed tits, and a mother blue tit feeding three tiny fledglings as they lined up on one of the supports.

I was elected as one of seven representatives from our District to go to the Methodist Conference in Telford at the end of June, but that has been cancelled in its usual form. We usually meet as a group to discuss the topics and format of the 5 days, and we did so this year but via Zoom, as we will with 300+ others this year. The Conference will not have the debate and resolution of the report we discussed last year on our understanding of relationships. This could have paved the way to same sex marriage taking place in our churches, but it has been held over to next year. It was felt that if we couldn’t give the time needed, meet in smaller groups face to face, and share on the fringes of the Conference, it could be challenged. This won’t stop us looking at more reports and ‘business’ to move our witness and evangelism forward.

Wednesday was Global Running Day, but I wasn’t aware of that as I set out in the rain for my early morning 5k run. It was only when I got back and Alyson told me that she heard it on the radio and I found out that I had joined with over a million people in 170 countries to celebrate a simple sport that those like me with little natural ability can participate in.

During my weekly virtual coffee later that morning with David, a friend from church, we reflected on the ways we need to change personally and as a church in how things are done, and lessons learned during the pandemic. My evening Bible study with 10 others via Zoom is one such example that we will continue with. There really is little point splitting us into two groups and travelling to each other’s houses, especially on cold wet winter evenings.

The cold and damp weather that started on Wednesday led to Alyson cancelling the get together with three former work colleagues in our garden on Thursday morning. The beauty of a ‘virtual coffee morning’ like the one I hosted for our head injury charity, is that the weather will not stop it taking place. There were 11 of us and I used a feature in Zoom that allowed all of us to be put in two separate ‘rooms’. One for the group that would normally meet in Crewe and the other at Ellesmere Port. It worked well and the smaller numbers meant that those who didn’t want to speak in the larger gathering chatted to members that they were used to meeting.

HIP Charity – Cheshire-wide coffee group members

We had ‘virtual Friday night drinks’ with Alyson’s brother and sister and then on Saturday night we had a Zoom quiz with my cousins and family. Alyson and I came second out of ten teams after 100 questions using an app on my phone called ‘Kahoot’.

Sunday brought my now weekly trip via YouTube to the service at Methodist Central Hall in London. We restated our belief in the sanctity of all human life, knelt in solidarity with those who are victims of discrimination, and prayed for the family of George Floyd. It brought to mind one of the modern songs we sing that challenges us to act for the wider good. These are three of the verses. They seem appropriate given the news this week.

Will you use your voice; will you not sit down
when the multitudes are silent?
Will you make a choice to stand your ground
when the crowds are turning violent?

In your city streets will you be God’s heart?
Will you listen to the voiceless?
Will you stop and eat, and when friendships start,
will you share your faith with the faithless?

Will you watch the news with the eyes of faith
and believe it could be different?
Will you share your views using words of grace?
Will you leave a thoughtful imprint?

Stay safe and I hope to post another instalment next week.

 

 

Life & Death – Coronavirus week 10 – taking things one day at a time

Week  10 in daily format.

I usually start these blogs at the end of the week but decided today that I will try doing a ‘daily’ note. This will allow me to capture my thoughts in real time and my mood in relation to events around the crisis. I will review and correct some grammar and shorten sections prior to publishing, but the essence of the days won’t change.

Monday 25th May – ‘I have never been so angry..’

Having made a determined effort in last week’s blog not to write much about Dominic Cummings, the story of his 260 mile trip to Durham, and Boris Johnson’s ‘defence’ of his actions at Sunday’s daily briefing, I woke up this morning quite angry. Not about the actions of the senior advisor, but more that I was so distracted by the whole thing that I missed a huge section of the blog which I had planned to cover.

Sunday 24th May was, for Methodists like me a special day. It is called  ‘Aldersgate Sunday’ formerly ‘Wesley Day’. As the web site for the Methodist Church in Great Britain explains;

In May 1738, John unwillingly attended worship at a Moravian ‘Religious Society’ meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. It was during this service that he felt his “heart strangely warmed”, as he experienced God’s love in a most personal and life-giving way. Until then he had known God in his mind, but not in his heart. Now he understood the value of a personal experience of God that would bring assurance of salvation to the believer.

This year the 24th fell on a Sunday so that made it even more relevant. Not so reluctantly as John Wesley, I attended a streamed service from Methodist Central Hall in London, just over two miles from Aldersgate Street in the City of London.  It was a wonderful service with over 1,500 watching. It was also the last service of their minister Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, former President of the Conference who was ‘retiring’ or as we call it ‘sitting down’ after over 40 years of service to his church. He was what we call ‘one of Mr Wesley’s preachers’, who had been ‘stationed’ in various places across the country as ministers in our denomination are called to be ‘itinerant’, usually staying in one place for around 10 years and then moving to another ‘appointment’ .

The penultimate service I attended in church before they were closed for lockdown was at Methodist Central Hall on 1st February. We were down in London for a visit and, never having been there, I decided to go for the Sunday service. It is an impressive place, built from the donations of one million Methodists, including members of my mum and dad’s families. Martyn was preaching and gave a challenging message about putting on the ‘armour of God’. I received a blessing and was anointed with oil by one of the Deacons at the end of the service. I  managed a few words with Martyn as we had briefly met a couple of years previously. It was in a small room at one of our closed churches, repurposed as a second-hand bookshop raising funds for the museum of Methodism at Englesea Brook Chapel, which is in our circuit between Crewe & Alsager. I was dropping some books off and Martyn was chatting to our Superintendent minister who worked there on his days off. Martyn had written an article for the ‘Methodist Recorder’ that came out that day and which was a challenge to modernise, and I told him it was thoughtful and a great piece. Martyn didn’t remember the conversation but knows the bookshop as he is a great collector of books, and said he would be going there a lot in the future as he and his wife are moving back to Derbyshire, less than an hour away from Alsager.

So, my anger was about not mentioning all that in last week’s blog.

However, the anger referred to in the heading of this section is my wife Alyson’s. Having never been ‘political’ before, she found the email address of our local MP this morning and wrote to him to express her anger at the situation over Dominic Cummings and her disappointment at the way Boris Johnson has handled it. I don’t think Alyson will mind me saying that her natural inclination is not to vote Labour. As a pharmacist and frontline worker who has seen the effects of coronavirus on her patients she wanted her MP to know. He is Dr Kieran Mullan who worked in the accident & emergency department prior to becoming our local MP for the conservatives and has gone back to work some shifts. It will be interesting to see if she gets a reply.

Neither of our moods was improved after the two press conferences that evening. The extraordinary lengthy one with the special advisor in which he showed no regrets but tried to explain why he could make special arrangements for his family. Followed an hour later by one with Boris Johnson. No one, particularly the journalists, was listening to details of how lockdown was to be eased by opening of shops and secondary schools in mid-June. Everyone wanted to keep talking about Mr Cummings. As the day ended the special advisor was still in place, left to be judged in the court of public opinion.

I sat and wrote my own email to Dr Mullan MP.

Tuesday 26th May – hey ho, hey ho, it’s back to work we go..

When the prime minister told the country two weeks ago to get back to work, I didn’t think it applied to me. I was enjoying my semi-retirement, time with Alyson, the warm weather and helping my church and the charities I am involved with. However, at 9.30am I found myself attending a Zoom ‘Monday Morning Meeting’ (moved due to yesterday’s Bank Holiday) with 18 of my new colleagues at an accountancy practice in Manchester.

My friend Steve had asked me back to do another systems project for his new company. If Alyson and I had been managing to take all the holidays that we had planned, there was no way I could have said yes. Truth be known I had some doubts about my ability but after a couple of meetings and 1-2-1’s my interest, and not a little ‘excitement’, was back. It took most of my day, and I had foregone the usual early morning exercise.

Meanwhile Dominic Cummings was still in his job, despite one ministerial resignation and a ‘revolt’ of 30 MPs and literally thousands of similar emails like mine to local MPs. It was left once again to the BBC ‘s Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis in her opening ‘monologue’ to sum up as follows

Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that and it’s shocked that the government can’t. The longer ministers and the prime minister tell us he worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be.  He was the man remember who got the public mood, who tagged the lazy label ‘elite’ on those who disagreed. He should understand that public mood now; one of fury, contempt and anguish. He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to feel they can flout them. The prime minister knows all this, but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his backbenchers, a dramatic early warning from the polls, deep national disquiet, Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it. Tonight we consider what this blind loyalty means about the workings of ‘Number Ten’. We do not expect to be joined by a government minister but that won’t stop us asking the questions.

Wednesday 27th May

Today was a warm one and started with my weekly 5k ‘local Parkrun’ which I have been doing as the usual Saturday morning one, I have done since 2016, has been suspended as part of the lockdown measures. We ate all three meals outside on our patio table and were delighted to see a pair of young goldfinches on our feeders.

The numbers of Conservative MPs asking for Dominic Cummings to  be sacked was over 40, and the prime minister was before a committee of senior members of parliament from all political parties. Their questions were supposed to be on his performance in the new parliament which started in December. However, they too concentrated a lot on his special advisor and what effect it might have in getting the message over for the rest of the pandemic.

Health secretary Matt Hancock tried to distract from the Cummings story by changing the sign on the podium at the daily press conference announcing the NHS test and trace strategy to help ease the lockdown. He was ambushed by the video question from a member of the public asking if everyone who had been fined for travelling to arrange childcare would have the money refunded. Perhaps taken aback by the questioner being,  as he so tweely described him, ‘a man of the cloth’, he desperately searched for an answer and promised to take it back and ask the treasury. The next day the answer came back – ‘no’.

At 9pm I logged onto the American businessman Elon Musk’s SpaceX website to watch a live stream of his Falcon 9 reusable rocket taking men into space in a Dragon spaceship that sits on top and carries astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. It will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and then return to earth. This was the first time since 2011, and it was cancelled with 17 minutes to go due to storm clouds. I looked forward to the second try on Saturday.

The virus touched this event when a photo of people watching the launch from a road bridge nearby caused a social media storm around social distancing and accusations that the picture in USA Today was an old one. I read an account on the paper’s blog that showed the picture from 2011 and you can see not quite so many  people, and some in the today’s one wearing masks.

We have watched the launch of a small rocket from a beach nearby the Kennedy Space Centre during a visit in 1994, so can understand the interest of locals in such a massive event.

Just before turning off my laptop to go to bed I made a sign parodying the one on  the daily briefing podium. Having done so, I almost deleted it immediately, worrying if such a thing was ok. I posted it on Facebook and Tweeted it to Rev Helen Kirk, our own Chair of District or ‘woman of the cloth’!

Thursday 28th May

The tactics seemed to work as the prime minister’s special advisor was not the top headline on news bulletins. My ‘funny’ podium sign was retweeted by Helen and liked on Facebook, so guess it was ok. This was the exchange between Helen and me.

When we had a coffee via Skype with friends David & Janis it was something they were annoyed about. Janis knows the road to Barnard Castle where the now infamous ‘test drive’ was taken and thought it unsuitable as a check for the type of journey back to London.

It was another very warm day and we had meals outside and did more work on the garden.

The evening briefing, after the cabinet had done their legally required 3-weekly review, brought news of another ‘easing’ of the lockdown measures. From next Monday we will be able to meet in groups of six in a garden or outside space, some non-essential shops, outdoor markets and car show rooms can open from the 8th of June.  Premier League matches would start from 17th June behind closed doors. Boris Johnson stated that he wanted to ‘draw a line’ under the Cummings affair and move on ‘as the country wanted’. Journalists had other ideas and asked more questions about the ‘illegal trip’, even trying to involve the Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer in the questions. There were questions about how people might hold ‘socially distancing barbecues’ in their gardens, and what if someone wanted to use a toilet in the house. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland announced different measures from England, just to add to the confusion.

The evening brought the tenth and final clap for carers. It was well supported and loud on our street, but it felt like the right time to end it.

Friday 29th May

We had planned to get up very early, have breakfast, drive to Delamere Forest, and see if we could manage a walk without getting too close to other people. We arrived at 8.45am and walked to a small isolated lake surrounded by some beautiful yellow orchids. It was not too busy with people, but there was a lot of litter from visitors over recent days. We resolved to take bags and collect it if we came again. We saw a lot of birds, went on a rope swing under a tree, and walked the parkrun course.  We arrived home by mid-morning and sat in our warm garden for lunch.

Alyson commented during the walk that it seemed odd to be in such a peaceful place surrounded by life when there were thousands of people in hospital fighting for their lives. I said that most days were like that, but it had been heightened in the last three months.

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the exchequer announced an extension of the furlough scheme and support for the self-employed until October.  It was at a slightly lower rate and employers were going to contribute towards the costs. Employees can go back part-time under the scheme.

We watched the last of the daily  BBC Two ‘Springwatch’ reports. It has been a joy to see all the birds nesting and trying to survive. Insights into nature, and a new section of ‘mindfulness’ where they show 90 seconds of pictures with no commentary. We have had river valleys, woodlands, seaside, and tonight’s was lakes and mountains. Wonderful.

This was followed by the satirical program Have I Got News For You, and we were back to Dominic Cummings again. The fun (laced with real anger) they had with the story reached new levels of satire. Apparently there is a Durham slang of ‘that’s a load Barney Castle’ meaning a pathetic excuse. It originates from medieval saying based on a siege in the castle. As one famous columnist is fond of saying ‘You couldn’t make it up!’.

Saturday 30th May

Another bright and sunny day. I got a new PB for my new regular ‘local parkrun’ and like every other week I finished in first place! Alyson was back on the frontline working a morning shift in a community pharmacy. It was again one where she felt safe with one patient at a time.

Two members of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) broke ranks to voice concern about easing lockdown restrictions too early, risking a second wave and peak of infections. There was a worry that having announced on Thursday that people could meet up in larger groups for a barbecue in gardens, some would start early with the forecast sunny weekend. Our neighbours had two families together in their garden with little evidence of social distancing, and on Alyson’s afternoon walk she saw a group of youths playing a football game.

I watched the SpaceX mission finally take off to the ISS at 8.22pm. It was a spectacular event.

Sunday 31st May

Harold Wilson, labour prime minister in the 1960’s is quoted telling lobbyists before a general election, when it wasn’t looking good, ‘a week is a long time in politics’. He won the election with an increased majority. Well, it is a week since the papers and television were full of stories and accusations about a trip to Durham. It felt at the time like Mr Cummings would be sacked, especially after another day trip to Barnard Castle came out. Boris Johnson decided to try to ride out the storm, pushback on any questions, and focus on getting the next steps of easing restrictions out. It appears to have worked. The news today was of opening schools and some shops tomorrow, and the overnight announcement that those who have been ‘shielding’, and locked in their own homes for the last ten weeks are to be allowed out for walks in the local area but still not to go to shops. They can meet up with one person from another household in the open air but must maintain social distancing. As the virus is around less than it was the chances of infection have gone from 1 in 40 at the start of their self-isolation to 1 in 1,000 now.

This Sunday in the church year is Pentecost (what used to be called Whitsun), the anniversary of the formation of the early church and the day the first ‘sermon’ was preached by Simon Peter after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Watching the service streamed from Methodist Central Hall, preacher Rev Howard Mellor reminded us that the disciples had been effectively in ‘lockdown’ for coming up to 50 days waiting for the next stage in their work.  The image with tongues of fire raining down reminded me both of the fires burning in the US from the protests over the killings of the unarmed black man George Floyd by a white policemen in Minneapolis, and the power of the burning of kerosene and liquid oxygen that took the two NASA astronauts towards the ISS. The US riots had spread to many more cities overnight with more fires and looting. There was little social distancing going on there or at the protests in central London.

I watched the live stream of the docking manoeuvre on SpaceX’s web site as the Dragon-2 spacecraft gently attached to ISS. Despite the seemingly ‘slow and careful’ way the two vehicles came together; we were reminded by the commentator on the video that the two vehicles were travelling at 7.66km per second or over 17,000 miles per hour. As I watched the spaceship close in ‘slowly’ for the last 20 metres between the two vehicles which took just over a minute, they travelled over 300 miles or the distance from Crewe to Land’s End! All at 260 miles above the earth. Over 1.3 million people were watching live on-line.   Docking happened at 3:16pm and the alarm on my phone went off. It is set to remind me of the famous Bible verse John 3:16. My mind went back to the time last November when I stood on steps on top of the Hulda Gate up to the temple at the centre of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Our guide told us that when astronaut Neil Armstrong stood on them he said

I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

It was seeing earth from the Apollo spacecraft and from the moon that reinforced Armstrong’s belief in something larger than humanity. He had been brought up in a Methodist family and on return from the moon he gave a speech in front of the U.S. Congress in which he thanked them for giving him the opportunity to see some of the grandest views of the Creator.

The final daily briefing of the week gave the figures for deaths on Saturday as 113 compared to 215 on Friday and 324 on Thursday. The total of deaths at the end of week 10 was 38,489.

We shared a weekly family Zoom with the boys. David was happy to be back on the river Avon after his second session of solo rowing from his club in Bath. He had also managed a short swim as he capsized his single-seater boat!  Michael had been walking in Delamere again.

Alyson has arranged for a friend from her ‘knit & natter’ group to come around tomorrow and sit in our garden to share a coffee. We are planning to meet up with her sister and husband for a walk somewhere between our home and theirs in Coventry.

Next week I am planning to look at a single issue related to the pandemic, perhaps the future of the health and social care services, or the costs of repaying the huge financial debts the government support has built up.

Keep safe.