BORIS Johnson’s star has been, to some inexplicably, largely in the ascendant during the pandemic, most recently explained by the successful vaccine rollout, despite any visible connection between him and it. A for-once inspired appointment, albeit tainted with potential cronyism, of Conservative MP Jesse Norman’s wife, Kate Bingham, as vaccine ‘tsar’ initiated the project and NHS workers essentially have done the rest. The star, however, is wavering, possibly assisted by Dominic Cummings, the delay in border closures and the related rapid increase in Delta variant infections, and the demise of summer holidays abroad.  Are the cracks, hidden in plain sight, starting to be noticed? The people of Chesham and Amersham are clearly not happy. The Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle certainly wasn’t happy when the announcement about the delay in lifting Covid restrictions was made to the press first. And an hours-worth of callers to Radio 4’s Any Answers (26 June) were positively spitting in the wake of the Matt Hancock revelations.

Likewise, Kevan Collins, the ‘catch-up tsar’ appointed in February. He resigned when the government decided to scale down its investment in ‘education recovery’ to 10% of Sir Kevan’s recommendation which had included money for wellbeing and mental health support, and sports, arts and social activities. The paltry £1.4 million ignores these essentials, being mostly for academic tutoring: at £50 per pupil per year, not even the £11/hour tutors favoured by some agencies will cover much. So much for: ‘no child will be left behind because of the pandemic’ (Boris Johnson, February 2021).

Following Dominic Cummings’ performance in front of two select committees, we had Matt Hancock’s appearance, along with the release of Dom’s WhatsApp messages, resulting in a new nickname – ‘Hopeless Hancock’, a publishable version of Boris Johnson’s opinion, apparently.  Apart from the verdict of Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse that Matt’s claims at the hearing were incorrect, he seemed also not to have swotted up for obvious questions, ‘not to my knowledge’ being a favoured response. Now he is gone, though Boris Johnson once more swerved away from a sacking, and we have a replacement who, it is said, is well-positioned network-wise to oversee the privatisation of the NHS.

In addition to Hancock’s underwhelming demonstration at the hearing we have actual illegality. In February the Good Law Project (full disclosure: total fan and supporter) took the government to court, and the judge found the secretary of state for health and social care had acted unlawfully in failing to publish details of contracts awarded, without competition, within the 30 days required. Earlier this month, Michael Gove was similarly found to have acted unlawfully in paying Public First, run by friends of Dominic Cummings, £500,000 for Covid-related services. There are more cases to follow.

Add to these issues: the planned reduction in the international aid budget (breaks a manifesto commitment, will cost lives), the making of unilateral decisions about the Northern Ireland protocol (breaks international law), appointment of pals to report on racism and the purchase of wallpaper, the shafting of farmers and fishermen … and you have a pretty sorry picture of the state of things here.

I hold on to hope that we will (soon, please!) get to a critical ‘enough is enough’ when the previous apparent lack of public outrage gives way to a growing desire for accountability and change.

For your interest: Issues Archive – Good Law Project  (an impressive list of issues, past and present)

Cartoon by Stan of Yorkshire Bylines

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

 SO where are we in pandemic-struck France now?

Well, the lockdown is lifting and many of the restrictions of the last few months (feels like years) are being removed. We can now drive freely where we wish and when (no more curfew), we no longer have to wear masks in outside spaces (only in shops or crowded places) and restaurants are getting back to normal.

The vaccination programme is ramping up and we will soon be on a par with the UK in terms of delivery – it turns out that people were not so reticent about being vaccinated after all and that the main problems we had were in sourcing the doses. There is a corresponding fall in the number of cases being reported, the numbers in hospital with Covid and the numbers dying of it.

This is all good news in terms of life returning to some form of normal. I have been able to return to playing my saxophone (see photo) in our favourite restaurant – I play and Jill and I eat for free, a great arrangement. Shopping and moving about are back the way they were – so we can return to IKEA!

But other things are not so certain:

Can my choir sing together again and perform concerts and what will be the criteria for our being able to do so? We are currently talking to our members about how we will be able to rehearse comfortably together again.

Will couples and their families be able to come to France from the UK this summer so I can celebrate their weddings with them? This year, so far, I have officiated at more funerals than weddings (4–0).

When will we be able to visit the UK and see our grandchildren and children again? And what is the future of international travel?

While things are positive here, we are cognisant of what happened last summer – then things were not so bad here until we had all the tourists visiting, bringing the plague with them (it is hard not to be a little protective and bitter about this!). A friend commented to me that ‘the Parisians will be coming down here for their holidays soon and none of them are vaccinated’, revealing common, locally held opinion about Parisians. But there is a point here, in that we are four weeks behind the UK in the growth of the Delta variant numbers and we can see a wave heading towards us, probably leading to increases in Covid infections in August and September (just when choir might start up again) related to those visiting the region for their holidays.

Finally, to return to international travel, while I am happy I have had two injections, and am as immune as I can be, I am aware that so much of the rest of the world has not had this benefit. International travel is going to be curtailed until the whole world has been vaccinated; the whole world is going to be at risk until the whole world has been vaccinated; and variants are going to continue to be thrown up until the whole world has been vaccinated. While it would be wrong for any of us to refuse the vaccine, at the same time our ultimate aim has to be that we all gain immunity – and at the moment the vaccine-rich do not seem too keen to help the vaccine-poor. Sadly.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

 HALFWAY through the third week of phase II of the South African vaccine rollout (over 60s) I decided to make my first acquaintance with Mr Pfizer’s product. I’m inclined to avoid medicine but decided it was my social responsibility to get the jab, buoyed by the fact that Edward Jenner, the man who invented vaccination having observed that milkmaids did not suffer from cowpox, practised as a doctor in my British home town of Cheltenham for 25 years two centuries ago. A small garden off Lower High Street commemorates him and there are a number of blue plaques on buildings.

Reasoning that old people would not rise early on the first day of real winter, I pitched up at gate 3A of the Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg, entrance to the local field hospital – somewhat optimistically before 7 am. ‘Are you really 60?’ asked the security guard. This seemed a very good start indeed, but business did not open for an hour. Encouraging me not to go away as I was the first customer of the day, I was then invited to queue outside on the pavement.

Would I die of exposure or exhaust fumes rather than Covid-19? After half an hour of solitude a health department employee invited me in and having detoured around an outdoor staff meeting I was shown into one of the Showgrounds’ former vast, now multi-partitioned, exhibition halls. It was a typical South African experience: camaraderie in the queue, pleasant and helpful staff by and large; but a slightly shambolic air. There was even some singing and dancing by staff waiting for the system to swing into gear.

After 50 minutes I emerged into the winter sunlight with a certificate having visited five different sections: screening; EVDS registration check; issuing of certificate; jab; and farewell monitoring. Signage as usual was at a premium. Why not indicate where patients are expected to queue and where to go next? But yes, South Africans can indeed get organised when the need is urgent. Thanking the security guard for his help as I left, he said ‘Ah, now you are strong.’ His slight grasp of the vaccination process aside, let’s hope so. Thanks, Dr Jenner.

A day later I was not so sure with acute muscular pain in my lower back. At first I thought I had pulled something, but this was a more generalised problem that felt like – well, flu. It was two weeks before I recovered, in the meantime wondering if Pfizer had turned me prematurely geriatric. People I know are avoiding vaccination and opting instead for homeopathic treatment or Ivermectin.

Each to their own. And I’m not looking forward to round two, although the third wave is now taking a disastrous grip on South Africa thanks to the Delta variant. Alarmingly, epidemic protocols, mask wearing, social distancing and sanitising have been reduced to easily ignored slogans. The government is caught in a dilemma: schools and businesses cannot be closed down again, but the citizenry is not coming to its assistance with common sense.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg