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8 July 2020

Letter of the week: Hancock’s half-hour

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

I am surprised that no one, as far as I know, has yet commented on the likeness of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to any of the porcine personae of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Hancock’s magically converted catchphrases, self-praise and magically converted statistics are straight out of the script. His amiable delivery on BBC Radio 4 (I do not have television, nor am I on the internet, so I could not comment on the manner of his televised interviews) is perfect, in terms of both the wording and accent, for giving both “four legs good, two legs better”-style announcements, as well as Hancock’s other efforts at massaging “stats”.  The secretary of state is clearly in the wrong job: the stage awaits.

Patricia V Miller

Future thoughts

Covid-19 has interrupted normal ways of life. Along with its awful consequences, it provides a pause, an opportunity to rethink, and now a chance to create something better. It has taught us all the importance of paying attention to risk. Despite pandemics appearing many times on official risk registers, adequate precautions were not put in place. This is symptomatic of the short-term focus of too much policymaking, with insufficient attention paid to long-term issues and those that will affect future generations.For example, we have to take the high risk of climate catastrophe much more seriously. In terms of droughts, floods, hurricanes, disease and food supply, and especially in combination with habitat and biodiversity loss, the climate emergency will be several orders of magnitude more serious than Covid-19. We need to combine measures to reduce carbon emissions with forward planning to cope with the consequences of what has already been put into the atmosphere. There must be no bailing out of carbon-intensive sectors such as aviation without strong conditions attached. This crisis also puts a question mark over the long and insecure supply chains that provide the UK with food, raw materials and manufactured goods, often on a risky “just-in-time” basis.

Our society’s complex pattern of inequalities has become more evident than ever. It is manifested in who goes out to work and who can work from home, who has a relatively secure job and who is on zero hours, who has a garden and who does not, people’s age, ethnicity, income, and wealth. The virus is also a reminder that some of the people whose work society most depends on are among the lowest paid.

The public response to this crisis, particularly in its earlier stages, has been a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when all sections of society work together. We need the same spirit and widespread involvement now as we begin to build back better.

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Professor Rupert Read,
Professor Jason Hickel,
Professor Victor Anderson,
Lord John Randall,
Caroline Lucas MP,
Clive Lewis MP,
Sir Jonathon Porritt,
Professor Richard Murphy,
Professor David Graeber,
Baroness Natalie Bennett,
Baroness Jenny Jones,
Professor Julia Steinberger,
Helena Norberg-Hodge

Important issue

The “Anatomy of a Crisis” special issue (3-9 July), is one of the most important pieces of journalism I have ever read. It deserves to strike the same chord as the book Guilty Men in 1940.

While the consistently amateurish government refuses to conduct a public audit on its response to date, this judicious and clinically written New Statesman analysis gives us a chance of learning lessons in time for any future waves of this pandemic in the months ahead. Bravo.

Anand Shukla
London SW19

In your leader (“Someone has blundered”, 3 July) you refer approvingly to Professor Neil Ferguson’s admonition that had the lockdown commenced a week earlier, then half of Britain’s Covid-19 deaths could have been avoided. That sort of claim is the usual last refuge of the scientific scoundrel: “had things been otherwise the outcome would have been different”. Imperial College’s original report of 16 March was packed with assumptions, many of which have proved to be incorrect.

Ferguson and his team ended their report with the disclaimer: “We emphasise that it is not at all certain suppression will succeed long-term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted.” It’s unsurprising that an inexperienced government of mediocrities and charlatans vacillated.

The lockdown should never have been enacted without a plan to dismantle it. Now we are confronted with devastating social and economic consequences that will outclass on an epic scale the impact of the disease. As Mark Woolhouse wrote later in the issue, lockdown must be lifted.

Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire

Learn the hard way

Helen Thompson slips into her column the following unsubstantiated remark: “for some teachers, opposing the government has become an end in itself” (These Times, 3 July).

The National Education Union has recruited 20,000 new members over the past few months. This is because workers in education know that the government is making reckless decisions, such as allowing Years 1 and 6, and 25 per cent of years 10 and 12, to return to schools on 1 June. This puts students, colleagues and communities at risk. We oppose the government because, as the headline on Professor Thompson’s column says, it lacks authority.

Simon Shaw,
National Education Union
London Borough of Redbridge

As a retired teacher, I am used to the government deferring responsibility to teachers to solve the problem. But I am not used to the New Statesman taking the side of the government over the teachers and unions, and I was shocked to read Helen Thompson’s comment that “for some teachers opposing the government has become an end in itself”. It is clear that she has no idea of what is involved in teaching in a school.

Four- and five-year-olds do not observe social distancing. They work with apparatus and learn through discussion with peers (particularly important for those who speak a different language at home). Other age groups are closely packed into a classroom, and even a metre social distancing means classes may not operate. Science, PE and art equipment would need frequent sanitisation. No such consideration has been taken.

Dodie Brooks
Via email

Path of resistance

The prospect of many public footpaths being wiped out in 2026 is appalling (“Beach-shaming Britain: the real story behind coronavirus crowds”, New, 30 June). The routes recorded on today’s Ordnance Survey maps were identified mainly by parish councils in the 1950s and 1960s when landowners were even more powerful than now. They ensured that routes through their estates, fought for by past generations, would be left off maps. The provision that these could be deleted six years from now was a sop provided to the landowning lobby by Tony Blair in 2000. It should be withdrawn.

Marion Shoard
Strood, Kent

A different account

In his letter about civilian massacres in the forests of 1950s Kenya, Tim Symonds attests that “not once in all my patrols among the villages did I come across any such event” (Correspondence, 3 July). Perhaps he was looking in the wrong place. Massacres did occur, but in the “protected” areas into which the Kikuyu people were forced; 11,000 died, according to official statistics – over ten times thatf you believe the evidence presented in Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Chris Simms
Marple, Greater Manchester

Cheadle confusion

I feel I must reply to fellow Stockport resident Michael Taylor (Correspondence, 3 July). The only reason I cannot identify as a true Stopfordian is that I was born in St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, which makes me just about as Mancunian as you can get.

Having lived in Stockport for only 35 years, I am still a relative newcomer, though I hope, by now, accepted as “one of us”. In any event, Royal Mail insists that this part of town is correctly addressed as Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire and not Stockport. Otherwise, happy to join any mutual support network!

Mark Hunter
Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire

As the crow flies

The New Statesman kindly printed my letter drawing attention to Noël Coward’s parody of Vera Lynn’s “bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover” in “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner” (Correspondence, 3 July). But I believe the editor made an error in printing “blackbirds” rather than “black birds”. I may be wrong, but Coward’s ironic celebration of impending doom seems better instantiated in ominous corvids than common garden birds. 

Jon Sanders

Cold comfort

Like Theo Morgan, I enjoyed Rachel Cooke’s review of Talking Heads (Correspondence, 3 July). However, I was bewildered by his comment that Bennett’s world is “a real comfort in these troubled times”. As Private Eye has it in its recent review: “Of the ten monologuists retained from the earlier series, two end up in prison, one as an alcoholic, with a further pair suffering mental collapse.”

Ralph Willett
Sherborne, Dorset

Blame-free bees

As someone with hay fever, I was amused by Becky Barnicoat’s comic strip (Outside the Box, 3 July), but my inner pedant can’t resist pointing out that insect-pollinated flowers are unlikely to be the source of the clouds of pollen depicted. Wind-pollinated plants such as grasses, trees and weeds are the chief culprits, according to the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit at the University of Worcester, which has produced the pollen forecast in partnership with the Met Office for more than two decades. Don’t blame the bees!

Claire O’Beirne
Chesham, Buckinghamshire

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This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation