The first is an example of Hancock-speak ‘whatever the situation is at the moment, that’s the best it could be’ (it wasn’t – we just didn’t have enough masks); the second an example of Johnson-speak ‘it will all be better soon, just hang in there’.
We rely on the state more at a time of crisis, it has more impact on our lives, and we want to believe it is making the right decisions. That should place more responsibility on those in government to tell the truth, but the reverse is true because the stakes are higher. So often we are told what we those in charge think we would like to hear.
The trouble is once trust is lost it is difficult to win back, and yet we need to be able to trust what we are being told about the virus more than ever. We need to believe that the current restrictions on our liberty are necessary and we need to believe the end of the pandemic is in sight with the rollout of vaccines.
Neither has been presented well. We have been told so many times by Johnson that the cavalry is arriving that it is difficult now to believe it will all be over by…Easter or maybe Whitsun. His comic book language draws attention to himself rather than his subject and far from clarifying often confuses the listener.
But for once he is echoed by the scientists, and it looks as though multiple vaccines may be available at least for the most vulnerable and at-risk groups next year. The tragic concentration of deaths in the elderly and chronically ill mean that vaccinating only 10% of the population may prevent two thirds of future deaths.
But it is also necessary to achieve mass vaccination if we are to achieve general immunity, and it is worrying therefore that less than 60% of people in London say they will volunteer to be vaccinated – hence the attempt to jab the Queen and David Attenborough, pour encourager les autres.
I’m hopeful that the immunisation programme will work – the advantage of a national health service is that we can get things done to the same standard across the whole country at the same time, though local public health and the military will also be needed for logistical support.
We have not yet been told where the local vaccination centres will be or when the first batch will be delivered but Imperial are ready to vaccinate all their staff and people in priority groups will be contacted, hopefully as soon as next week.
It will help achieve general immunity if we already have falling levels of infection, and this is why the next few weeks are crucial. The reality is we are still in a form of lockdown, it is just called Tier 2 or Tier 3. More of the country is under tighter control than before the recent actual lockdown.
It is difficult to argue with this approach, though whether it would be necessary had either the first lockdown or the lifting of restrictions in the summer been better handled is another matter. However, the details leave a lot to be desired.
I think two principles should have defined the rules for this winter: that temporary inconvenience should be sacrificed to avoid permanent damage and that purely social contact should take a lower priority than economic activity.
To some extent this is what the government has done – reopening retail and some sports and entertainment venues while not allowing household mixing at home. I think they could have gone further where businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, have gone to great lengths to restrict close contact. Sadly, London is moving in the wrong direction and as I write there is a real danger of us entering Tier 3 before Christmas.
At the risk of being Scrooge I don’t buy the Christmas relaxation. If this leads to a further lockdown in January it will finish off a lot of businesses. Yes, it would be hard to miss a family Christmas, but it is only one. If it protects vulnerable relatives and jobs it will be worth it (unemployment has doubled locally since March). Clearing the tracks for Christmas travel and allowing several households to mix and then disperse (as happened with consequences over Thanksgiving in the US) sounds like more irresponsible Johnsonite populism.
I worry about the pressure on the NHS still trying to recover its usual standard of care. We all know people whose cancer treatment has been delayed and over a thousand patients locally have waited more than a year for treatment. But when Gove says hospitals will be overflowing, does anyone believe the man who has had enough of experts?
Numbers of in-patients with Covid have been rising at our local hospitals and are not yet going down. There are about half the number of the April peak though only a quarter the number on ventilators as treatment has improved. But these are still worryingly high. Add flu and other winter pressures and NHS staff will be under real strain in January and February.
A more cheerful note to end on: H&F has the lowest incidence of Covid among the over-60s in London, due in part to the Council’s control of infection in care homes. They have also made plans for care home residents to receive visits. I know from those whose loved ones are in homes in other boroughs where this isn’t happening how painful the separation has been. Care home residents are the number one priority for vaccination, hopefully that will be in time for Christmas.
The current deal or no deal frenzy leaves me cold. It is a choice between two grim futures, one distinguished by being more chaotic and destructive in the short term. How did we get here? UK politics has been captured by a sect within a sect – the no-dealer wing of the hard Brexit lobby. I find myself agreeing with George Osborne.
None of the current self-inflicted wounds were flagged in the Referendum. Life is already hard and will be for the foreseeable future thanks to Covid, why are we choosing to make ourselves poorer, more isolated from the world and more divided amongst ourselves? Who actually wants to pay for healthcare in Europe, get a visa to visit, have to leave after 90 days and apply for an international driving licence? What were the downsides of allowing our citizens to live and work in 27 other countries?
Johnson was the catalyst both for the referendum result and last year’s General Election. His brand of politics, a mix of crude populism, music hall comedy and sociopathic dishonesty achieved unexpected results which don’t reflect any established opinion but, like Trump can do a huge amount of damage in a short time. And all simply to get him to a position his own abilities and character would not allow on their merits.
We now have over 60,000 killed by Covid, acts of Parliament that authorise lawbreaking, mass deportations, attacks on human rights and the independence of the courts, cuts to humanitarian aid that will cost tens of thousands of lives and the promise of cutting £20 a week from the income of the poorest households as we enter the worst ever recession.
Six months ago, I was frustrated with progress on repairing the Bridge, three months ago, when the taskforce was set up in response to its closure, I was briefly hopeful. Now I am just angry, and I think that is the mood of a lot of people and not just in H&F and Richmond boroughs.
There is an appreciation now that this is a difficult and expensive problem to solve. But it is eminently solvable.
Let me try and explain as dispassionately as possibly where we are and what needs to happen next.
Since the major structural issues were diagnosed work has gone on to plan the repair (this cost about £17 million and was funded by Transport for London – it means we know what needs to be done) and to safeguard and monitor the bridge (this is costing about £3m a year and is paid for by H&F – it led to the decision to close the bridge in September).
The full cost of repair (effectively renewal of all the main components) is around £150m and will take several years. Even before Covid there was no way anyone could afford a sum of this magnitude except central government. This is unarguable now as the Department for Transport is underwriting TfL’s budget and H&F, like all local authorities, is in major financial trouble.
Some complicating factors. There is an urgent need to stabilise the Bridge – this alone will cost around £46m and take most of a year, but is essential to stop it collapsing and to reopen the river to traffic. While major works are done some means of crossing the river is needed for those making exhausting detours just to get to school or work – and the quickest way of providing this is a ferry.
So, as part of the money government is providing to TfL, some will pay for the ferry and some for further investigation work. There is no separate budget for the ferry, it will come out of the Healthy Streets fund, which is £75m to pay for walking and cycling improvements for the whole of London. The ferry will be operational by ‘spring’. The £4m for investigation will pay for work to the supporting pedestals over the next four months.
Suddenly, today and without notice to anyone, the government announced that maybe the Bridge could open to foot and cycle traffic anyway subject to further investigations – but they refused to take any responsibility for its safety. This has been typical of the chaotic and opportunist way they have behaved going right back to the election last year and beyond.
Meanwhile H&F have worked with Norman Foster and Sir James Ritblat to come up with an innovative scheme for a temporary bridge. Unlike previous designs which would have run alongside the existing bridge this would go above the deck between the towers, meaning there is no need to create new roadways where it lands on each side.
So, some things are happening, but you have probably spotted the flaw in all this. No one has come up with the money to restore the main Bridge. And until they do, we will be stuck 200 years in the past, the last time the only way to cross the river at this point was by boat.
More heat than light is being generated as to whose ‘fault’ all this is, especially on social media. We could equally argue whose responsibility it is – H&F owns it, the GLC used to own it, it is part of the strategic road network and the government has twice promised to fund the full cost then reneged.
But the correct question to ask is: who can afford to pay for it? The answer is only the government and at present they appear unwilling to do so. I have had three meetings with the roads minister, who now chairs the taskforce set up to take charge of the project. At the first in March (pre-Covid) she wanted TfL to pay. By September, with the government bankrolling TfL, she turned her attention to H&F. For H&F to take the lead would require massive service cuts, tax rises or borrowing or all three to fix a bridge that half of London and the south east use, yet local Conservatives are saying H&F residents should pay at least £50 million.
When I spoke to her last week she changed tack again. The government couldn’t put up funds because there hadn’t been a proper procurement process. If that happened and if the other parties led on funding the government would consider making a contribution.
It is pretty clear from this stalling that she and therefore the taskforce doesn’t have the authority to authorise the works and that those who do – DfT or the Treasury – are either playing politics or bargaining to reduce their outlay. If it is the former – as the presence of the Conservative candidate for London Mayor hovering around the issue suggests – it is pathetic and I hope the public will tell him and any other politicians trying to weaponise the issue to stop.
If it is about money, they need to be reminded (I do frequently in the Commons) that typically DfT pays 90% of the cost of major transport schemes. Arguably the £20m already spent by TfL and H&F should provide their share especially in the current climate, but there is the option of a toll for non-local traffic to pay the balance.
What is certain is that stalling by a government that has just borrowed £400 billion should not be holding up reopening this vital transport link.
Another unique Hammersmith landmark is under threat – Wormwood Scrubs. Not the prison but the 200 acres that provide our biggest and most distinctive open space, part sports pitches and part wilderness. It is this latter (western) area of the Scrubs, home to a delicate ecology of birds, bats and badgers, nature reserves, copses and grasslands that risks being irreparably damaged by works ancillary to the building of the HS2 station at Old Oak.
There has been a lot of focus on the station site itself – which in ten years’ time will change from derelict land to the second biggest interchange in the country, where HS2 meets Crossrail and the Great Western. But as part of the plans Old Oak Common Lane is to be lowered to take double decker buses and the main sewer will be moved from under the station to under the Scrubs.
This is authorised by the HS2 Act and work could start as soon as January clearing woodland and building access routes. How this is done will make a big difference to how much damage is done to the Scrubs and its ecology. A coalition of local residents, the Friends of the Scrubs, the council and voices from across the borough and beyond are trying to control HS2’s activities – something that is not easy to do as events further up the line have demonstrated.
Last week I raised the issue in the Commons, but it is on the ground here that decisions will be made and I intend to go and pace the route with HS2. The first priorities are to use the existing entrance onto the Scrubs (from Old Oak Common Lane) as access rather than creating a new one from Braybrook Street as the Act allows and to limit the work sites to the less sensitive parts of the Scrubs.
HS2 has provided nearly £4m to pay for restoration and improvement after the works finish in a year’s time (though some will continue along the western border until 2024) but some of the more sensitive habitats have taken decades to evolve and money alone will not compensate.
Part of the problem is that although the council owns the land and manages it through the Wormwood Scrubs Charitable Trust, the planning authority is the Old Oak & Park Royal Development Corporation. This body itself has been going through some turbulent times as its plans to turn the Car Giant site off Scrubs Lane in a new residential district have fallen through and it is rethinking is strategy for regenerating the area. One very simple idea, which I have been urging for the past four years, is to hand back control of the Scrubs to H&F.
It is no surprise that the evidence being heard at the inquiry into the Grenfell tower fire is painful and shocking. It was apparent soon after the tragedy that there had been catastrophic failures in the construction, use of materials, management and inspection of the block. All this is being set out in detail at the inquiry – if you want to a full but readable account follow Peter Apps of Inside Housing.
But what goes beyond even this level of negligence is the culpability of the main players – the manipulation of tests, the concealment of fire risk, the knowing use of highly flammable materials, the disregard for the residents and their concerns. Surely this must lead to criminal charges and hopefully for some justice to those whose lives were sacrificed.
The legacy of Grenfell goes far beyond the individual and collective grief of those who lost family, friends and neighbours. It has exposed a rotten industry, with thousands of buildings – not just flats but care homes, student halls, hospitals, schools and hotels built to appalling and dangerous standards
Not only does this means hundreds of thousands of people are living in unsafe dwellings, but that they are trapped there – unable to move out and unable to afford the cost of making them safe. For tenants and leaseholders alike, this is a nightmare. These issues are raised every week by MPs even against the background of Covid and Brexit, but the Government’s response, three and a half years on, is wholly inadequate.
Local round up
Retail casualties. All ‘non-essential’ retail, hospitality and supply chain businesses are suffering from small family concerns to Westfield. Some sadly may not survive. Argos in King Street will not re-open and Barclays in Shepherds Bush will close on 12 February 2021. This is hugely disappointing. Shepherds Bush town centre is slowly but surely being regenerated, with plans for the W12 Centre, new owners for Shepherds Bush Market and new hotel and residential development. And yet we have lost HSBC and the Post Office in the past few years – and only saved NatWest, soon to be the only bank on the Green, after a fight.
The Barclays site is prominent and it seems illogical to make a decision to close now when Covid is depressing custom. Customers will be referred to King St but that’s not the point – town centres need banks.
Doorsteppers. People in H&F have been very generous during the pandemic, but sometimes we all need a nudge. So, Margaret Blankson – a legendary campaigner whom I have worked with for over 35 years – set up Doorsteppers when the virus hit. Her volunteers leaflet streets around the borough asking people to leave out food parcels at a specific day and time – then they collect them. Simple but brilliantly effective as I found when I joined them last Friday. We collected hundreds of bags of food in a couple of hours and delivered it to the H&F Foodbank – Britain’s busiest. So far Doorsteppers has sourced over 40 tonnes of food and other necessities.
Today I was helping the children and parents of Wendell Park Primary pack hampers for those going without this Christmas and I know that similar schemes are happening across the borough.
Mother of the Wounded. Compassion and community action aren’t new to H&F. A century ago Constance Baker, a local seamstress, responded to the huge numbers of wounded soldiers returning from the Western Front by turning her house into a convalesce home.
Her great-grandson still lives in the borough and made sure her heroic efforts are remembered. I was pleased that our usual act of Remembrance also went ahead at the borough’s war memorials despite Covid – Shepherds Bush leant Fulham one of our pipers, easier to socially distance than their usual brass band.
Zooming. Everything that can’t be done in person can be zoomed I have found. Lots of Q&As with schools for Parliament Week, an interview with Carers’ Network, a lobby on Palestine and speaking at the Mencap and UPG AGMs this month. It really isn’t the same as seeing people in the flesh but it a good second best. Still, roll on spring and roll out the vaccine.