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29 April 2020

Letter of the Week: Consult the vulnerable

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

Bob Ferguson (Correspondence, 24 April) raises an important issue, which is that decisions over resuscitation status and how aggressively to pursue active versus palliative treatment should always be made on an individual rather than a blanket basis, and should involve discussion with each patient.

There is, however, no contradiction between this ethical approach and a systematic process to ensure these conversations have been held with vulnerable patients in advance of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The patients of mine who did not already have advance care plans in place have appreciated the opportunity to have these discussions with me, and to express their wishes. As Bob Ferguson points out, if one ends up trying to make these difficult judgements once a patient has become critically unwell, one has left it too late.
Dr Phil Whitaker
Norton St Philip, Somerset

WHO’s to blame?

I was disappointed to read Lawrence Freedman’s article “The WHO’s failure on China cost us dear” (Observations, 24 April), which misrepresents the facts. Contrary to Freedman’s assertion, the World Health Organisation (WHO) did mention possible human-to-human transmission at a press briefing on 14 January (please see Lancet editor Richard Horton’s article of 25 April 2020).

Professor Freedman implies that the delays here in the US and in the UK in preparing for the pandemic are not really the fault of these governments, but of the WHO. However, the severity of the situation was already widely known by the end of January. While the WHO certainly made mistakes, the NS should not be part of this attempt to lessen the blame on the US and UK governments for their unforgivable prevarications.
Hans Weenink 
Washington, DC

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Labour’s civil war

Peter Wilby mentions the leaked Labour Party report on anti-Semitism and expresses regret that any internal discord over this might detract from the fight against the Tories (First Thoughts, 24 April). But the problem is that the report has alleged that senior staff at Labour HQ, their salaries funded by members working hard for a Labour victory, used their positions to undermine us electorally for dubious factional aims. That thousands of members are going to be angry about this is inevitable. 

If Keir Starmer wants a united party in which we all move together against the Tories, he needs to act to restore the members’ confidence that those who have worked against us in the recent past will not be allowed to get away with it.
Steven Bligh

Happy clappy

I agree with Jason Cowley’s description of the positive aspects of the “magical mutuality” of applauding NHS and other frontline workers (Editor’s Note, 3 April), but I wonder how many working in the sector feel supported. We have had ten years of austerity during which the NHS has been negatively affected: there are 40,000 nursing vacancies, there has been an 8 per cent loss in wages, and hospitals are working beyond 85 per cent capacity (95 per cent in London). Do we, the public, feel good about ourselves by this public demonstration because participating does not really cost us anything?
Michael Moore
Loughton, Essex

Grand national

Rowan Williams is right that nationality and nation states have not always existed; perhaps, as he implies, they may not exist at some future point (Correspondence, 24 April).

However, nationalism was a political force long before the 19th century: in England it was strongly evident in Alfred the Great’s campaigns and propaganda, and those of his pre-Norman successors. Wars among the British nations in the 1200s, for example, were imbued with nationalism, although not caused by it. Matthew Paris, a well-connected contemporary chronicler, was extremely hostile to Frenchmen. 

The 19th century was the peak of nationalism, but it was a political force long before then.
James Simister

Pope’s prelude

In her exuberant review of Jonathan Bate’s Radical Wordsworth (The Critics, 24 April), Kathleen Jamie writes of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” that in 1806 it was “unheard of for a poet to explore his own self-development”. This is an overstatement. The 18th century’s greatest poet, Alexander Pope, vividly dramatises a life narrative plagued by a “long disease”. Pope is a “self-creating” subject on his own account and in “Windsor Forest” he is as nostalgic about the influence of place on poetic growth as any later poet. 

At the other end of the scale, there is the story of the self in “The Bastard”, the famous autobiographical protest poem by Pope’s friend Richard Savage, the dodgy companion of Samuel Johnson’s early London days. The poem vents Savage’s resentment as the unacknowledged son of an adulterous union, a conviction he retained to his dying day. Bate devotes a large proportion of his study to the Wordsworth of the 18th century. A more cautious account of how “The Prelude” is a “quite new” work in 1806 must look beyond poetical autobiography for a mode of which no one at the time had heard.
Philip Smallwood

A plague of quacks

Nicholas Lezard regrets losing his copy of Camus’ La Peste because of its contemporary resonances (Down and Out, 20 March). I’m just coming to the end of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and can recommend it for many such resonances, despite the nearly three centuries since its publication in 1722. 

Defoe’s description of the fake news of 1665 – for example, how “a set of thieves and pickpockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations” – put me in mind of a certain head of state.
Tim Rose
Brighton and Hove

Go figure

One of the most depressing aspects of this crisis has been the irresponsible use of figures, almost invariably cited out of context and couched in as emotive terms as possible. The BBC and Sky News have been especially culpable. 

I was therefore disappointed to see your own Leader (24 April) kick off with another pointlessly unsubstantiated and emotive statement that Britain has one of “the highest mortality rates from Covid-19 in the developed world”. What you mean is the number of dead, not rate. Without knowing how many people have been infected as a proportion of the overall population the rate will elude us, as will the ability to make any comparative judgement. 

If we are not to allow this parlous situation to lead us into far more dangerous consequences, which include untreated other medical conditions, mental breakdown, domestic violence and the brutal impact of poverty, then we need to keep level heads.
Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire

Sophie’s voice

Sophie McBain’s powerful article (“Criminal injustice”, 3 April) has restored my faith in nuanced reporting: accessible, insightful and factual, without having an agenda. More, please – of Sophie McBain and this type of reportage. 
Tim Kendall
Brighton and Hove

Politics of division

In his review of David Lammy’s book Tribes, Stephen Bush notes the way that identity politics has affected politics (The Critics, 27 March).

Identity politics highlights the things that divide groups rather than what unites them. Divisions based on identity distract from issues such as poverty, lack of influence and health. If minorities spoke with a unified voice they would be a powerful force for change. 
Richard Dargan
Old Coulsdon, Surrey

Local hero

Thank you for William Boyd’s great review of A Schoolmaster’s War (The Critics, 3 April), Jonathan Rée’s account of Harry Rée’s extraordinary wartime experiences. I worked alongside Harry for some years at the University of York, where he was professor of education. In all that time he never mentioned the war, even on long car journeys together. Harry was kind, confident, loyal and charismatic; never distant or superior. He shared the pleasures of life and his philosophy with modesty and enthusiasm. A great man.
Daniel Mcdowell 
Ludlow, Shropshire

Only humanist

Joan Bakewell’s Diary (24 April) highlights the intensely damaging effect of Covid-19 on our prisons, but also where relief can be found. With a huge reduction in activities, National Prison Radio is now the lifeline into prisoners’ cells. Audio clips of poetry can truly provide comfort. The Humanist Group has alleviated the loneliness felt by those in prison, making not only their lives more bearable but also those of the amazing prison staff. 
Roma Hooper
Chair and Founder, Prison Radio Association 

Wear champions

In his final column of the season (The Fan, 3 April), the wonderful Hunter Davies mused that the football clubs that won the first division title and FA Cup in the year of his birth, 1936, were still the top teams of today. 

Were that only true. It seems peevishly pedantic in the current climate to point it out, but the first division champions in 1935-36 were Sunderland not Manchester City, who won in 1936-37. Rather than being a top team, Sunderland have been in the third tier of English football for two years and have not been champions since the year of Mr Davies’ birth. 
Simon Turnbull
Newcastle upon Tyne

A Loughton lad

I relished the touch of Housman at the end of Peter Wilby’s lament on the potential state of cricket this season (First Thoughts, 3 April). Apt for these strange times.
Alister Browne
Palmerston North, New Zealand

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This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave