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Finding focus in office exile

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.

We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.

By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.

Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.

For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Amy’s top study from home tips:

  • Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
  • Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
  • Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
  • Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
  • Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
  • Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
  • Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here

#CriminologyBookClub: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

As you know from our last #CriminologyBookClub entry a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all seven bloggers contributing! Our latest book was chosen by all of us (unanimously)  after we fell in love with the first instalment. Without more ado, let’s see why we all adore Inspector Chopra (retired) et al.:

@saffrongarside

What a great read! I was extremely excited to read another book in the Baby Ganesh Agency Series and once again I was not disappointed. There was more mystery, a rich subplot and of course my favourite baby elephant. Vaseem, charmingly immerses the reader into the colourful and picturesque Grand Raj Palace. The way the book is written sets your mind up as though you are watching a film.   The story allows you to escape from the uncertainty and mundane realities of life. Which is always welcome! And thrusts you into a mystery within a mystery. I would advise any reader that is interested in reading the series to definitely consider starting at the beginning, with the Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Although the stories do not pick up from each other, you definitely get an appreciation for the characters as they grow and change throughout the series. I liked the way Poppy is taken out of her supporting character role and is put centre stage, while investigating her own mystery. With laugh out loud humour, dark revenge and whacky characters, this is a book that will entertain you from start to finish.

@svr2727

In this instalment of the baby Ganesh Agency investigates a homicide of a very important person in a very important hotel. Inspector Chopra (retired) is on the case with his very unusual sidekick, investigating the world of corporations, big business and luxury. In the meantime, the Chopra universe is expanding and the characters are becoming more intricate and multifaceted. The household, now apart from the striking tenacious baby elephant, has little Irfan a child Chopra and his wife Poppy so desperately wanted. The story takes us through a different world paying homage to some corporate crimes that made it to the news. The conclusion of the drama is a reveal of whodunit in a very classic revelation scene. One thing you are left wondering, what will happen when the baby elephant grows to his full size?

@manosdaskalou

So far I have loved each of the Baby Ganesh Agency books. They have brightened my day and taken my attention away from life in a pandemic. As ever, with @vaseemk2’s series, you get the heat, the smells, the tastes, the views of India, attacking your senses. In this book, there is a striking contrast between light and dark in the cases resolved by Inspector Chopra (Rtd) and the wonderful Poppy. For me, the exploration of institutional violence caught my attention, the parallels to the Bhopal disaster, drawn clear and bright. Even in fictionalised form, institutional violence takes your breath away in the harm perpetuated and the complete absence of official interest. Lives lost without remark, without empathy. Without giving away any spoilers, equally striking was the almost Agatha Christie-like sleight of hand, where readers are encouraged to embrace their prejudices, only to have them destroyed with the denouement. At this point, I have the 5th book in hand and whilst I am excited to get started, I am also seriously worried. I really don’t want this series and its wonderful characters to come to an end….

@paulaabowles

Murder at the Grand Raj Palace was by far my favourite of the Baby Ganesh Agency novels! I particularly enjoyed the closeness of both cases, the uncomfortableness of Chopra in the presence of a beautiful woman who was not his wife, and Poppy’s strong and independent, yet interconnected, storyline. The twist on who committed the murder at the Grand Raj Palace, and why: I can honestly say I did not see coming! Without trying to give too much away: it is a must read which entwines themes of justice, family and social ills! Inspector Chopra does not disappoint: YET AGAIN!

@jesjames50

What is there to say about this series that we haven’t already? I love these books! They are vibrant and colourful and genuinely immerse you in another place with characters that feel like old friends now. The fourth book was possibly my favourite of the series so far: the setting of the Grand Raj Hotel, the monkey movie star’s assaults on Ganesha, spending more time with Poppy as she solves a mystery of her own, Chopra’s uncompromising resolve to crack the case and his grand unmasking of the criminal at the end. I didn’t want it to be over – bring on book 5!

@saffrongarside

This book includes my favourite sub-plot of the Chopra series so far. Poppy herself plays detective! I thought that it was great that the sub-plot and the main plot were based within the same setting, this made the book seem action-packed. Usually with the Chopra books I enjoy reading at a steady pace but I found this book difficult to put down, and this is not a bad thing. Sometimes when I read books I am disappointed by the ending, with this Chopra series this has not happened yet. Perhaps this is why these books are so pleasing to read. I was very pleased with what happened at the end with the women in red.

@haleysread

As the newest member of book club, I had missed out on the previous books in the Chopra series. Although the book is part of a series, I never felt as though I had missed anything or that I needed to catch up. I immediately liked the characters, particularly Poppy and the baby elephant, Ganesha. I identified with Poppy as a strong woman and Ganesha, despite being an elephant has the personality of a human. Secondly, I enjoyed the way in which the author wrote about India and how his fictional version reflected reality. Having been to India I was instantly reminded of the sights, sounds and smells. Members of the royal families and the fuss around the wedding recalled memories of my sister’s Indian wedding. Indeed, it was Poppy’s investigation which engaged my attention more than the murder. In the end, I was more concerned with the whereabouts of the bride than I was the uncovering of the murderer. This was a joy to read during the Christmas after a frantic first term of lecturing in the pandemic. I have already made a start on the final Chopra episode but I will definitely return to the first few books.

@amycortvriend
@5teveh

Thank F**k it’s Easter!

A number of years ago I wrote a blog entitled: ‘Thank F**k it’s Christmas!’. In it, I had a general moan (nothing new there) about how exhausted the staff and students were in the first term of the new academic year: Christmas break felt desperately needed. At the time, I was still an Associate Lecturer but had just begun my MSc at Leicester as well as supporting my partner on the weekends. I felt burned out, overwhelmed, and ridiculously grateful that the Christmas break had arrived. I also commented on the importance and need for work-life balance for both staff and students, something which many of us have still not managed to achieve and something which appeared increasingly challenging during the various Lockdowns. Yes; a number of us have worked/studied from home, but that has blurred what used to be clear working hours (in theory), and home life. I honestly do not know where one ends and the other begins. Therefore, I find myself back in a head space which is screaming: ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter!’.

This term has been challenging, term 2 always is. We have navigated another lockdown, assessments, lectures, workshops, all sorts. Now, throw into the mix a cyber attack on the University and ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter’ rings louder. Staff and students have persevered in the name of education and demonstrated resilience. Something I think we should all be proud off. But the anxiety, frustrations and exasperation which the lack of IT services has generated, feels like it might take some time to overcome. I am cautious to advise us to consider work-life balance as we go into the Easter Break, as I fear I will sound hypocritical. I advised the need to take time to ourselves before, and to organise some kind of work-life balance, and in all fairness that went straight out the window once we returned from Christmas break (maybe a week of two after, I am sure I attempted a balance to begin with).

Nevertheless, I do think it is important to recognise our strengths, our achievements and to take time to breathe! For many of us, we have been without our families and friends for months. Lockdown is easing, and I am naively hopeful that this will mean we can see those who are dear to us again soon: safely and sensibly. But until we reach that point, I am also exceptionally grateful that the Easter weekend is upon us. Whether we celebrate the bringing of chocolate by the Easter Bunny, or the death and resurrection of Christ: we should all celebrate that we have made it to the end of term 2. Celebrate our achievements no matter how big or small, timetable some time to yourselves: read, run, drink gin, watch films, cross-stitch, do whatever brings you some kind of peace and most importantly: breathe. The University is closed from Friday 2nd April  and re-opens on Wednesday 7th April. Lets all take some time for ourselves and breathe. Happy Easter Everyone!

Never Fear….Spring is almost here (part II)

David Hockney, (2008), Arranged Felled Trees https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/49564201146

A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.


When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.


Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.

My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.

On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU

Lockdown and Locked In

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a whole range of issues for so many people. Everything from job losses, businesses closing down, people being unable to leave the house, people panic buying and stock piling. There has also been a sharp increase in mental health issues, loneliness, isolation, and fears about what the future holds.

However, one thing that has been reported on, is the increase in domestic violence that has occurred across the country. In April 2020, phone calls to the charity Refuge were up by 49%, (1) and people accessing their website seeking help had increased by 417% (2). As more people are working from home, abusers are at home too, making it harder for survivors of domestic abuse to get away from their partners.

In an effort to combat domestic abuse, and to provide confidential help to survivors, the government launched the ‘Ask for ANI‘ codeword scheme (Action Needed Immediately) whereby a survivor of abuse can go to their local pharmacy and get private and confidential help. Survivors can ask if they want to get help from a domestic violence refuge, or to get the police involved. Everything will be led by the survivor who will be in the private consultation room with the pharmacist helping the survivor (3)

References

(1) Home Office (2021) ‘Domestic Abuse and Risks of Harm Within the Home’ Available online at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmhaff/321/32105.htm#_idTextAnchor000  Accessed on 19/02/2021

(2) House of Commons (2020) ‘Home Affairs Committee’ Available online at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmhaff/correspondence/HASC-transcript-15-April.pdf   – page 24. Accessed on 19/02/2021

(3) HM Government (2020) ‘Guidance for Pharmacies Implementing the Ask for ANI Domestic Abuse Codeword Scheme’ Available online at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/940379/Training_information_-_Ask_for_ANI.pdf Accessed on 19/02/2021

Other Sources

Unlisted (2020) ‘Domestic Abuse Codeword Pharmacy Training Video’ Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOs3awxx5YU&feature=youtu.be  Accessed on 19/02/2021

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. 

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!

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. 

My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

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