How was “freedom day” for you? On the stroke of midnight a photogenic few leapt on to the dancefloor and raved into the small hours; but the NHS, social care, schools, supermarkets, hauliers, hospitality and transport sectors rumbled and raged with incomprehension at the chaos and hypocrisy unleashed by our leaders. Not even Boris Johnson’s Houdini magic may prevent these U-turns, dishonesties and panics turning his second anniversary at No 10 into his Black Monday turning-point.
The prime minister’s glory day was such a disappointment. He had planned an event to declare his own VE Day – virus victory – “by summoning the spirit of Churchill with appropriately stirring rhetoric” at “an historic venue associated with the wartime leader”, according to a government source. In a rare wise move, Downing Street quietly cancelled it.
His advisers panicked over soaring Covid case numbers, predicted to rise to 100,000 or even 200,000 daily, the third-worst level in the world. What political idiocy, that the PM and chancellor thought they could skive off self-isolation on a nonexistent VIP “pilot scheme” – the same one Michael Gove had invoked to avoid quarantine after taking his son to the Champions League final in Portugal. Far too late, Downing Street announced that No 10 and the Cabinet Office had pulled out of this “pilot”, refusing to publish its results.
Leadership in this time of plague has been absent, so it’s no surprise to find Prince Charles boasting that he’d wear no mask as he breathed and hymned through Exeter cathedral today, with the Daily Mail adding that “the Duchess of Cornwall is known to dislike wearing a mask”. Well, yes: masks are a minor nuisance, itchy, muffling, stuffy. But in this antisocial defiance, the royals are deliberately allying themselves with a raving right that uses the harmless mask as a symbol of tyranny.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady MP, declared in a Sunday paper: “I believe the real purpose of masks is social control.” The public, he swore, had been seized by “Stockholm syndrome”, the government using “fear to manipulate the population of a free democratic country”. “How far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall!”
There’s no space here to discuss how “freedom” has been purloined and perverted by the right – but what breathtaking frivolity to refuse to wear masks that can reduce transmission by 25%. Now get set to watch the public frustration and friction over swaggering macho men and defiant anti-vaxxers refusing masks, putting other passengers and shoppers at risk. Churchillian Johnson might have said, “Never in the field of human viruses was so much infection due to such an irresponsible few.” Polls this week have again shown that the public understands the precautionary principle better than their leader does.
“The warning light on the NHS dashboard is not flashing amber, it’s flashing red,” the health committee chair Jeremy Hunt told the Today programme on Saturday. There’s no better alarm signal than the double-jabbed new health secretary immediately contracting Covid, with unknowable long Covid effects, risking its spread through a care home he visited and pinging half the cabinet after close contact with them. That’s the story: the virus is everywhere, disease-inducing and still deadly to VIPs and little people alike.
“Please, please, please be careful,” Boris Johnson urged in full U-turn, but that’s not what his lot practise. His “irreversible” pledge has vanished because, right here and now, disaster has already struck an exhausted NHS all over again.
But so as not to spoil freedom day, the public was not supposed to know about it. The Health Service Journal reports that three NHS chief executives have been banned from speaking to the media about the “unsustainable pressure” their hospitals are facing, and banned from commenting on the reckless removal of masks, social distancing and indoor gathering limits. They confirmed that NHS chiefs’ WhatsApp group has “quite a few angry people” commenting on leaders’ failure to signal the present danger. “There is a sense that we are expected [by government] to pretend it’s all over.”
Silencing the NHS is absurd, and it never works. Some un-cowed souls will always speak out – especially seasoned seniors such as Nick Hulme, a well-respected troubleshooter, now chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex trust. “We are breaking every previous A&E record every day,” and not in a good way, he tells me. Covid cases are filling beds. “This is still a major crisis and we expect a third more cases for the rest of this year as they relax the rules.”
What Hulme calls the “Covid hangover” is each day bringing in between 16 and 20 seriously ill people whose cases were missed, such as “stage 3 and stage 4 cancers, presenting with a far worse prognosis”, needing speedy, complex care. Sending out medics in scrubs to beg triaged A&E patients to go away and see their GP doesn’t necessarily work: they don’t go if they can’t get a GP appointment.
“The test-and-trace debacle has caused a crisis,” he says. He has lost 32 staff who’ve been pinged by the NHS Covid app and told to isolate for 10 days. “Two senior consultants pinged off for 10 days means we have lost 200 outpatient appointments and 200 operations, leaving an entire team redundant.” A great relief to him is the announcement today exempting pinged health and care staff from quarantine. But unions are up in arms, defending NHS soldiers on the frontline taking the Covid bullets. Their pay review reward, possibly to be announced this week, may be only a one or two percentage points above the sub-inflation 1% government offer.
No wonder No 10 has tried to silence the voices of the NHS. Hulme’s waiting list is the highest since records began: “and we’re doing well,” he says. Back in 2010, the NHS had virtually no one waiting for more than 18 weeks; now Hulme has 4,500 patients waiting for more than 52 weeks. The government has also quietly dropped the 18-week measure from its NHS bill. The national list had risen to 4.5 million people before Covid struck, caused by a decade of NHS austerity when funding per capita fell: now Sajid Javid is warning that waiting lists may reach 13 million.
New cases among vaccinated people are set to outstrip cases among unvaccinated people within days, according to the non-profit ZOE Covid study group. Those who have been vaccinated may be less likely to die, but why the complacency about surging long Covid cases? Boris Johnson’s “Do what I say, not what I do” freedom day won’t be remembered for Churchillian declarations, but for foolish boasting, toxic politics, and calamitous health policy misjudgment.