Thoughts from the criminology team

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Keep Calm and Forget the Pandemic or What to do in a pandemic? Take advantage of the situation

Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles.  Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists.  Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories.  Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes.  Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.

The optimist in me is unequivocal.  We can make it through.  Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions.  In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution.  The answer is in us as a collective.  Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.

Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them.  Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail.  Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink.  Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species?  Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other. 

The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose.  People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual.  The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues.  In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well. 

It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other.  After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others.  Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them.  We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest.  Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving.  Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand.  As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made.  Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse.  People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation.  We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again. 

In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam.  This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters.  Wipe the slate clean and start again.  So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much.  Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues.  One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in.  Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace.  In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses.  Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties.  It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door.  In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons.  A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong.  When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community.  If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic.  For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded.  My advice to those who rule, listen to your base. 

The Case of Mr Frederick Park and Mr Ernest Boulton

As twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify as with people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but it’s roots are little longer

Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.

So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….

But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;

‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’

(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)

Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:

‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’

Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)

It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.

You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives where firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.

This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.

McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:

Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.

It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..

References

McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]

Drag queens and space occupying scenes

In closing out LGBTQ+ history month, Luke Ward and I spoke at the UoN Psychology Society about our research on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Given the popularity of the series (especially now it is available on streaming service Netflix), it is likely that even if you are not a part of the LGBT+ community, you may have seen the show (or at least shared a meme or two).

The series Ru Paul’s Drag Race first began on LGBTQ+ network Logo TV, and over the past decade, has made the move from a niche and community oriented market, to a mass market phenomenon. This echoes the roots of drag, from the underground ballroom scene in 1980s New York, to the accessible (but not always affordable) drag shows and conventions that are available today. We have moved away from the underground to taking up more space – cis, straight, previously unavailable space – which has made drag something more lucrative than its initial inception.

It is within this commercialised region of drag that we see a shift in focus within the community. It is not just a symbol of resistance against societal norms of gender and sexuality, but it is also something of a commodity – something that to our (patriarchal) society, has become useful, in being able to sell products (literally – make up, drag queen merch) to a wider (mostly young, white, and straight) audience. Whilst the majority of the Drag Race series have been based on the US, if we bring in the UK to this conversation, the evidence of wider accessibility of drag can be seen through its showing on the BBC, of all television networks.

Whether the commercialisation of drag is a positive for the community remains to be seen. However, what we can say on the back of the success and accessibility of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is the awareness that has been brought to a range of intersectional issues, from racism to religion, and gender identity to social class. Though some of these issues might not be news to the LGBT+ community, we can most certainly agree that it has brought about discussion of such issues to those who perhaps had not even thought about such positions, let alone experienced them. Especially with the perpetuation of social media, community discussion has never been so lively, both online and offline.

Regardless of your opinion of the series, it has opened up conversations in new spaces that brings visibility to the LGBT+ community. We discuss these issues, as well as the comparisons between US and UK drag, in our recent paper that you can find here.

Criminology is everywhere!

When I think back to thinking about choosing a degree, way back when, I remember thinking Criminology would be a good choice because it is specific in terms of a field: mainly the Criminal Justice System (CJS). I remember, naively, thinking once I achieved my degree I could go into the Police (a view I quickly abandoned after my first year of studies), then I thought I could be involved in the Youth Justice System in some capacity (again a position abandoned but this time after year 2). And in third year I remember talking to my partner about the possibility of working in prisons: Crime and Punishment, and Violence: from domestic to institutional (both year 3 modules) kicked that idea to the curb! I remember originally thinking Criminology was quite narrow and specific in terms of its focus and range: and oh my was I wrong!

Whilst the skills acquired through any degree transcend to a number of career paths, what I find most satisfying about Criminology, is how it infiltrates everything! A recent example to prove my point which on the outside may have nothing to do with Criminology, when in actual fact it could be argued it has criminological concepts and ideas at its heart is the 2015 film: Jurassic World. It is no secret that I am a huge lover of Crichton novels but also dinosaurs. But what I hope to illustrate is how this film is excellent, not just in relation to dinosaur content: but also in relation to one of my interests in Criminology.

Jurassic World, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of viewing, focuses on the re-creation of a Jurassic Park, sporting new attractions, rides and dinosaurs in line with the 21st century. The Indominus Rex is a genetically modified hybrid which is ‘cooked-up’ in the lab, and is the focus of this film. Long story short, she escapes, hunts dinosaurs and people for sport, and is finally killed by a joint effort from the Tyrannosaurus, Blue the Velociraptor and the Mosasaurus: YAY! But what is particularly Criminological, in my humble opinion, is the focus and issues associated with the Indominus Rex being raised in isolation with no companionship in a steeled cage. Realistically, she lives her whole life in solitary confinement, and the rangers, scientists and management are then shocked that she has 0 social skills, and goes on a hunting spree. She is portrayed in the film as a villain of sorts, but is she really?

Recently in Violence: from domestic to institutional, we looked at the dangers and harms of placing individuals in solitary confinement or segregation. Jurassic World demonstrates this: albeit with a hybrid dinosaur which is fictitious. The dangers, and behaviours associated with the Indominus Rex are symbolic to the harms caused when we place individuals in prison. The space is too small, there is no interaction, empathy or relationships formed with the dinosaur apart from with the machine that feeds it. The same issues exist when we look at the prison system and it raises questions around why society is shocked when individuals re-offend. The Indominus Rex is a product of her surroundings and lack of relationships: there are some problematic genes thrown in there too but we shall leave that to one side for now.

There are a number of criminological issues evident in Jurassic World, (have a watch and see) and all of the Jurassic Park movies. Criminology is everywhere: in obvious forms and not so obvious forms. The issues with the prison system, segregation specifically, transcend to schools and hospitals, society in general and to dinosaurs in a fictional movie. Criminology, and with it critical thinking, is everywhere: even in the Lego Movie where everything is awesome! Conformity and deviance wrapped up in colourful bricks and catchy tunes: have a watch and see…

Reflecting on reflection

For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development.  Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective.  It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.

What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me.  I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar.  My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review.  The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts.  For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment.  Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine.  I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor.  And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.

Switching off?

I am not sure whether this relates to age or not but during my late 20s I became increasingly reluctant to engage with watching television, using my phone and engaging in social media. I suppose there are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that I enjoy being able to ‘switch-off’ from looking at any form of screen. The change in the nature of my job role and in this current lockdown context means that at the moment I am less able to ‘switch-off’.

The increased screen time demand plays all sorts of tricks on the human body. We seem to be a nation of people that are experiencing the sensation of a ‘buzzing brains’, ‘square eyes’, headaches and ‘burning faces’ due to too much screen time.

Recently, I made an irrational decision to watch the rather grim Fifteen Million Merits episode of Black Mirror. This episode consists of individuals being forced to look at screens at all hours, and it also included much seedier scenes. This episode has absolutely no resemblance to the current situation that we are all in. Although, the episode did remind me of some of the diffculties that people may be experiencing in terms of not being able to ‘switch-off’ from looking at screens whilst working from home.

Work now consists of me using my laptop in my office. I do wonder whether living in smaller living spaces makes matters worse? In terms of my own flat, my office is six steps away from my living room and two steps away from my bedroom. I have never experienced such close proximity to work. When work ends I then attempt to ‘wind-down’ by using my phone or watching the television. My whole day seems to consist of looking at some form of screen. Some of us are fortunate to have gardens. I wonder if this helps people to spend a bit or time relaxing whilst working from home?  

https://dansmediadigest.co.uk/black-mirror-series-one-episode-two-fifteen-million-merits-5133c7c75821

Maybe we will all be diagnosed with ‘square eyes’ and ‘buzzing brain’ disorders in the future. Maybe these terms will make it into the dictionary. What I do know is that when lockdown ends I would love to spend a whole day just staring into space, lying on the grass or floating in a warm sea somewhere outside of the U.K. Is it just me that feels this way? Maybe I have just lost the plot.

The moral of this story is, do not watch dystopian television programmes during a lockdown. As you may begin to reflect about all sorts of nonsense!

#CriminologyBookClub: The Tiger’s Wife

I selected The Tiger’s Wife for us all to read for book club. On first impressions the book seemed to be very interesting. My understanding was that the book would be about a tiger, his wife, a grandad and The Jungle Book. I have very little knowledge of Disney, but I did enjoy the upbeat ‘Bare NecessitiesJungle Book song as a child. As it turns out, both The Jungle Book and The Tiger’s Wife are both grim tales. In terms of The Tiger’s Wife, I enjoyed the elements of humour within the book. I also enjoyed reading about the smells, scenery and tastes of another country given that I have not been able to leave Britain for a while. The ‘deathless man’ character was also quite intriguing. I do feel unsure about this book though. At times I was puzzled about the plot. It is also an incredibly sad and heavy tale which covers themes like war, death, disease and domestic violence – perhaps not the most appropriate choice given that we are in a national lockdown! I think this is a book that I may return to in better times.  

@haleysread

What struck me about the book was that it centred around death but was largely devoid of emotion. The grandmother was described as being emotional about the death of her husband, but the book was narrated in such a way that this emotion was not felt by the reader because the grandmother was not wholly present. She was always at the other end of the phone and therefore removed from the reader. Instead, the book was lightened with humorous characters such as the Deathless Man and folk tales of superstition. These characters and tales transformed what could (and perhaps should) have been a depressing tale to a mildly sorrowful yet darkly comedic series of tragedies.

@amycortvriend

This was quite possibly my favourite of all the book club reads so far, although it is a particularly tight call (4th instalment of inspector Chopra is a gem: but shhhh spoilers)! I am quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this book which appears much to the contrast of my esteemed friends in book club. It was beautifully written, depressing, full of escapism and challenging at the same time. I was truly lost in this book as a story: I am not sure I can tell you what the story is about or what the message or meaning behind it is. But I adored it. It made me think of Big Fish and The Bee Keeper of Aleppo all mixed together (another 2 gems if you have not read them). I can appreciate how perhaps it was not the most fitting for a global pandemic, but nevertheless it is a text that I will most certainly read again!

@jesjames50

In a far away corner in Europe, people try to live with the aftermath of a war. The conflict has brought up in the community, wounds that take time to heal and the doctors who look after the physical wounds are trying to cope with the long-term effects of harm. In the backdrop of that, the story of a young doctor who is remembering her beloved grandfather takes central stage. The woman discovers a grandfather through the eyes of others. This is a post war society and many things do not make sense. The author, Téa Obreht, stitches together a story of reality with a lot of surrealism to underline the absurdness of war especially a civil conflict. Symbolism becomes intricate to the story and in the end you are left wondering who is The Tiger’s Wife?

@manosdaskalou

I found the book to be hard going. That’s not to say that there weren’t some parts of it that I enjoyed but on the whole I didn’t find much in the book to excite me and at the end I was left with a feeling of …’and’. I found that too often I was unable to follow the plot getting bogged down in, what I must admit, were beautiful descriptions of countryside, villages, animals and people. For me, the story lacked purpose, describing old superstitions, combined with historical tales which seemed to have little purpose other than to provide perhaps a vivid description of the cruelty of war and its aftermath. On a more positive note, it has prompted me to research the wars in the Balkans and maybe, that will push me to return to the book

@5teveh

The timing of The Tiger’s Wife as our book club read was impeccable. Leading up to the Christmas holidays, everything seemed to become overwhelming and I felt rather numb. Reading The Tiger’s Wife with its dreamlike qualities suited my mood extraordinarily well. The subject of war, and the damage it causes, is close to my heart. In this book, it is not tales of heroes and villains, but the quiet, pervasive harm which war leaves in its wake, touching everyone and everything, in small, often indiscernible ways. We may not be at war in the UK, but it made me consider what life will be like after the pandemic, when many of those harms are also prevalent. For instance, our NHS workers may not have been in battlefield hospitals, but treating severely ill Covid-19 patients, with a high death rate, on a daily basis will undoubtedly have a profound impact. Ultimately, The Tiger’s Wife is an anti-war book, with more questions than answers, but as the pandemic has shown us, uncertainty does not mean the end of hope.

@paulaabowles
https://pixabay.com/illustrations/tiger-walking-wild-art-watercolor-3564572/

Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.

I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.

Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.

Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.

Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management

Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.

I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.

In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.

Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.

The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex. 

With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.

Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally.  History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.

When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.

Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.

In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.

Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.

Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.

Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.

In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.

References
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8

Education, education, education: We’ve lost the plot

Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy.  Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems.  My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging.  But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education.  It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.

In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil.  In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise.  If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test.  But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards.  The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.

So, what of education?  Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired.  A degree is the same, is it not?  How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching?  The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking.  Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course.  A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test. 

Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot. 

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