As I write this it is a very grey dreich Inverclyde morning. We are 100 days into lockdown and despite continually improving statistics, including many days without any recorded deaths due to covid19, there is still no clear exist path back to normality.
Indeed, there are many questions pertaining to what that normality will look like. But without turning this into some sugar-coated sickly-sweet Disney version of reality there have been some quite amazing accomplishments by citizens of Inverclyde during this crisis. Before Covid19 Inverclyde Community Action Response Group (ICARG) did not exist and yet through application and cooperation across local organisations they have created a powerful cohesive programme that has resulted in over 25,000 meals being funded, prepared and delivered to homes across Inverclyde. 1,000 prescriptions collected and delivered, 4,000 food boxes delivered and over 8,000 ‘keep in contact’ phone calls made. And these phone calls have gone from averaging fifteen minutes to averaging forty-five minutes. This is on top of the existing pre Covid19 services. This is additional demand that some people didn’t believe even existed. And yet we know at the grass roots it does and volunteers combined with established community workers took on the challenge and beat it.
Often, it is not just about the meal or the prescription, as highlighted by the telephone service, it’s the human contact that matters. A knock on the door to deliver food means somebody knows you exist, somebody is looking out for you, somebody cares.
Eventually, the dark clouds will roll away and when that happens, we must not forget the sense of community spirit that so many people have embraced to such great effect in these times. Inverclyde is so much better than some of the damning statistics that we read about. Sometimes we just need to believe in ourselves, believe goals can be achieved and work together.
Brave New World
My favourite book is Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. It is a savage critique of the fallacy of a man made, genetically controlled perfect society. The reason the book works is that Huxley has created a world without worry. It subtly seduces the reader with the idea of a comfortable stress-free existence where everyone conforms and “everyone is happy now”. And let’s be honest in real life individuals can be really annoying. Covid19 has highlighted this. New rules have been created to help us all get through a health pandemic and yet some folk will not conform. This ranges from senior government advisers and ministers exuding the superior than thou attitude that they can interpret rules to suit their needs, to folk ignoring distancing, refusing to wear a mask, visiting family and friends when it is inappropriate and generally picking and choosing their version of what they can do with no respect for others.
But just as in the book, individuality is crucial to us as human beings. If you remove choice, then we are all poorer. There will always be people who abuse their rights as an individual and transform that into a selfish disregard for everyone else’s feelings. But if we allow those people to push us into a society where conformity is everything then we all lose. Individuality and all the complexities and frustrations that entails used responsibly and mixed with a compassion for the common good will stand us in good stead through this crisis, and after it, when we adjust to the new normal. A normal where we respect individuality within a new society where we need to respect each other’s space.
Send in the clowns
Last Tuesday, the circus that is Westminster was taken over by the clowns. Since lockdown I and 649 other MPs have been able take part in committees, meetings, debates and votes using the hybrid parliament that was established to fulfil these tasks. It was implemented quickly and was introduced as a temporary measure in case, once it was up and running, we encountered problems or reasons were found to desist from using it. The expectation was that after a successful temporary period we would extend the timeline, possibly until summer recess at the end of July.
Instead, what has happened is that Jacob Rees Moog in his capacity as Leader of the House ran the clock down and now wants to reinstate a physical parliament. Except it won’t be. Select committees, All-Party Parliamentary Groups and sundry other meetings can still take place virtually. What Mr Mogg wants is the House of Commons populated (maximum of 50 MPs at time) and physical voting to take place. That’s why on Tuesday MPs had to physically vote to determine if physically voting was safe! This is akin to Joseph Heller’s book Catch 22. If we go there, are we saying it is safe? Even if we go there to vote against it, because who would be daft enough to take part in a physical vote if it were not safe to do so? As the lobbies have been deemed unsafe, members stood in a queue and voted one at a time at the despatch box. Some found it harder to do than others. A full house of MPs will take one hour for each vote. The SNP did not put any pressure on anyone from our group to go. I chose not to go. I find it unfathomable that I am expected to travel to work in an environment that public health England and the Public and Commercial Services Union have deemed unsuitable. Worse than that staff will be required on site to support members. And then I am faced with the dilemma of staying in London over the weekends, something that I never do, or travelling home and potentially carry the virus back to my friends, family and constituents. And while Jacob Rees Mogg pines for the days when he can recline on the green benches once again, not even he will have missed the irony that the dusty old curmudgeons of the House of Lords have embraced a fully digital chamber. It is time to move forward and build on what has been created. After the COVID19 pandemic is over, we are not going back to the old normal and parliament should lead the way for progress, not remain stuck in the past. And not force me to put other citizens at additional risk from this terrible pandemic that has already taken over 40,000 lives.
During the Coronavirus pandemic we have witnessed many changes to our society and our life habits. The way we live our lives both socially and in the working environment have been transformed. These changes have been necessary to avoid the worst outcome possible but unfortunately could not prevent all infections and subsequent deaths. The National Risk Register 2017 had a pandemic as the number one threat. It was identified as a flu pandemic but never the less many of the consequences had been considered. However, we don’t seem to have been best placed to deal with this pandemic and we didn’t react quickly to the nuances of this virus. The UK Government should have produced a new register in 2019 but as yet has not done so. Our reliance on the internet of things has grown during this crisis. There has been increased use of Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Zoom, Microsoft teams and phone companies are providing special offers for bundles of data. Even Westminster has embraced the use of teleconferencing and extended that to remote electronic voting. So it is worth noting that within the identified risks is a Cyber Attack and the register makes the point that “The scale of our dependence on cyberspace means that our prosperity, key infrastructure, places of work and our homes can all be affected by cyber-attacks.” My concern now is that we are building a greater dependency on a resource which may well be the harbinger of the next crisis. We should be making moves now to anticipate potential vulnerabilities and ensuring that the resilience plans in place are robust and effective before we find our health service, transport systems, retail outlets and supply chains, crippled by a virus of a completely different genre.
Before the Covid-19 crisis has even started to draw to a close there are those that want to start an inquiry into how we got it wrong. I understand that reaction. I have been critical of a number of actions and lack of actions by the UK Government and there will be a time for that debate.
Much has been said about the higher death rate in Inverclyde. It is almost three times the national average and I believe there are reasons, that existed long before the current health crisis, that have driven up our unacceptable death rate. These reasons need addressed but they have needed addressed for some time and they won’t be fixed before the end of his crisis. Now is not the time to look over our shoulders to see where we came from. The obstacles are in front of us. And even if we are critical of the course of action that got us here, we can’t ignore the fact that we still have responsibilities as individuals to act in a manner that can reduce the spread of infection and therefore reduce the burden on the frontline workers and ultimately reduce the deaths. Increasingly, I am contacted with accounts of people gathering in groups and not observing social distancing. In relation to the population of Inverclyde it is very small numbers that are letting us down, but it always is. Anti-social behaviour is always confined to a small number of ignorant selfish people and it’s never acceptable, but now, in the current health crisis, it could prove to be deadly. It may be hard to visualise that, but this virus is transmitted through our community from person to person. And that may be via surfaces as well as being airborne. Isolation and distancing remove the chance of it travelling. 2020 may yet prove to be the year of perfect hindsight but in the here and now we need to face up to the practical aspects of how we can all help.
Please stay safe and stay healthy.
Some are more equal than others
One of the continual drum beat messages that emanates from the UK government’s ministers is that we are all facing COVID-19 together. They repeat ad nauseam that the virus can affect anybody and will cross all social barriers. They use Prince Charles and the Prime Minister Boris Johnson as examples. But just as the Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t face the same dangers or hardships that the working men and woman did in WW2 ( breakfast in bed, whisky and soda at 11am, multi course lunch at 1pm, at 5pm he took a nap at 6:30pm he rose and had a bath, at 8pm he had dinner with with guests, where drinks and cigars accompanied the meal ) then neither do the richest and most privileged today. As they bend the rules to suit themselves and holiday homes and castles become havens from the virus and as a result put pressure on rural health care services, the real heroes are the people that continue to work at the frontline, the NHS nurses, auxiliaries, cleaners, care home workers, emergency service providers, our supermarket and corner shop staff, call centre workers, deliver drivers and postal workers. People in crowded accommodation and people already living on the breadline will contract the virus in greater numbers and more will die. When this is all over, I have no doubt that we will all be told that collectively we showed great spirit, that fortitude was in abundance and we are all the closer for it. But that is not the truth and we should not allow ourselves to be patronised. No doubt the Queen will hand out baubles in her honours list and men and women will kneel before the monarch in gratitude, but it should be the other way around.
The UK Government was slow to react to the evidence, while other countries were going into lock down, Boris Johnson was shaking hands in hospitals. The herd immunity was the preferred path. When the Scottish Government was telling people not to go to pubs and clubs, the UK Government dithered, when offers of ventilators were made to the UK Government the email was ignored, when social distancing was being asked of everyone, cabinet members sat side by side at Westminster. Once again in challenging times the United Kingdom’s Government has been shown to be out of touch with reality. It can manage a sound byte, it can manage a press conference but it must not be allowed to manoeuvre itself away from all accountability. If we are to learn anything from this crisis it is that we need to reshape our society so that community and equality are more than just politically expedient words to be used during a crisis. They are the keystone of our society.
I remember at primary school part of the English curriculum was ‘interpretation’. I was given a written piece of work and the lesson included reading it and explaining, in my own words, what I had just read. During these times, it would appear the skill of interpretation is being pushed to its limits. Advice, which is blindingly obvious to many is completely missed on others. The nuances of working conditions, self isolation, social distancing and furloughing are debated and discussed at length but often interpreted differently. Whether that is to enable an easier outcome born from selfishness or a genuine lack of understanding is hard to say. The situation is not made easier by constantly changing information but as the crisis unfolds and our understanding grows then the advice will change.
The number of people contracting COVID-19 will increase as will the number of people who will die from it. We each have a duty of care to ourselves our family and friends and to the wider community to do everything we can to stop the spread. The health professionals as always are on the frontline and there are many council workers that are continuing to do their job to ensure continuity of much needed services. Companies that are doing critical work are open but must ensure employees health is to the forefront of their working practices. Volunteers continue to provide a much-needed safety net, often for the most vulnerable people in our society.
I would once again plead to those companies that remain open and are asking their workforce to continue, to take a long hard look at themselves and ask if they are putting profit over people. We are all being challenged by this pandemic and as individuals we must take personal responsibility for our own behaviour. There will be nothing new in that for most people, but it is worth reiterating. It’s good that we show our appreciation of the NHS staff and beyond by clapping but the best thing we can do is stop the spread. The solution is not dramatic, stay at home, only go outside for essential food or health and work reasons, stay 2 metres (6 feet) away from other people, wash your hands regularly and wash your hands as soon as you get home. Failure to observe these basic rules will create the sort of drama that we really don’t want to be part of.
We are living through the most extraordinary of times. Our community has been required to make changes to minimise the harm that will fall upon it. And as the days and weeks go by we shall have to make more. In most crisis I would expect people to rally round and help each other. Some politicians have attempted to invoke the spirit of the blitz. I don’t think that’s appropriate for a number of reasons, but the comparison doesn’t stand scrutiny anyway. During the war, communities faced a common enemy for periods of the day or night and then rallied together to make the best of what they could. Even during air raids, the shelters became a place of community. But the solution to COVID-19 demands isolation. Many of us can’t risk mixing with older family members or those with underlying health conditions. It is prudent to keep all our human contact to an absolute minimum. The irony of that is while isolation will protect us from the virus and ensure our physical health, it can be bad for our mental health. Social media, which can be a curse at times, could turn out to be a blessing. Products that allow us to talk to and video people all over the globe are just as useful to talk to people much closer to home. Whereas before it may have seemed strange to Skype or Zoom somebody that lives on the same street as you or a friend that you know you will see later that week, now it is important that we do. Create your own wee digital community. It doesn’t need to be a long chat, just checking in to make sure someone is alright. A phone call or a text can make all the difference. We can help each other through the coming weeks and out of sight must not mean out of mind. Today and in the coming weeks, please wash your hands, only go out when necessary and keep in good health, physically and mentally. The tide will turn.
On the surface the budget was all about where the UK government plans to splash money, it is light on where that money will come from and what the expenditure will achieve. It doesn’t address the pressing issues that people face in our communities day in day out. We face the immediate uncertainty from COVID-19 but there is no indication of what funding Scotland will receive from the announcements that money will be made available! I expect the full consequential from this additional funding to ensure the Scottish Government can respond effectively. The Tories plan to end E.U. friction-free trade, and potentially impose new tariffs, which will pose a threat to Scottish jobs, living standards, public services and the economy. Tory plans to end freedom of movement could see Scotland’s working age population plunged into decline. This will only be worsened by their plans to increase the Immigration Health Surcharge to £624. I was pleased to see the UK Government take action on the tampon and reading tax following sustained pressure from SNP MPs Alison Thewliss and Patricia Gibson, however some of the government’s more abhorrent policies remain. The tax credits 2-child cap and rape clause need to be scrapped. It is appalling that at least 510 woman have been forced to disclose they were raped to receive benefits. This budget fails to go far enough for workers, the cut to employers’ National Insurance falls short of the Conservatives manifesto pledge to cut national insurance up to £12,000 this budget has only taken it to £9,500. And when it claims to be green budget it falls far short. The delay of the National Infrastructure Commission shows the Tories have no plans to achieve net zero, despite Scotland’s ambition relying on U.K. reserved policy action. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is providing £1.8 billion of investment this includes £220 million of seed funding for the Scottish National Investment Bank. £64 million is being invested to support the commitment to plant 12,000 hectares of forestry, with the aim to reach 15,000 hectares by the mid-2020s. This Budget was a lost opportunity, big on promises, small on detail and not designed to address the issues that affect our society most today.
I make no apology for returning to a topic I have mentioned numerous times before. After a weekend of torrential rain and flooding it would appear that we still have lessons to learn in Inverclyde. Once again, the main road to Glasgow has seen major disruption. Granted, the weather we experienced over the 21st and 22nd was extreme, even by Inverclyde standards but if predictions are correct then we can expect to see more extreme weather in the years to come. Progress has been made and it was noticeable that Greenock West railway station did not flood and that the work along Inverkip road has also been successful. But if we are to maintain road and rail links to Glasgow and crucially the health provisions that we seek from there then more work is required.
The facts are clear for everyone to see. Inverclyde is primarily built on the side of hills. The populated areas of Inverclyde are on the river side of the hills. It rains a lot. Water runs down hills. Without interference from us the water will, over time, find its own way to other bodies of water. Locally the principle body of water is the River Clyde. Historically this job was done by a network of burns running into the Clyde. It wasn’t always successful and high tides have caused floods on the lower roads since the end of the 19th century.
The best solution is to work with nature and not against it. No amount of concrete will solve the problem. Rainfall must be trapped as it falls. The reforestation of Inverclyde should be a major project. Capturing the rain in the hills through smart planting of the right trees in the right areas, the creation of flood bunds and flood plain storage will not only reduce the water flowing down the hills it will create jobs and improve our environment. We already have excellent projects run by Parklea Branching Out, Friends of Coves nature reserve and Belville Gardens. The knowledge acquired in these projects must be utilised and expanded. Reforestation will create a natural habitat for wildlife and enhance the area. The rainfall that is perceived as a problem could become part of a solution.