Covid-19 – why are we taking unnecessary risks?
Just 36% of adults in Hammersmith & Fulham have been fully vaccinated, I informed Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions today.
At a time when we’re being told it is vital to have the second jab to protect against the Delta variation in particular, almost two thirds of people here don’t have that protection.
Incredible efforts have gone into achieving even these levels of vaccination, but there are particular problems in inner city areas. Myths about the safety of vaccines seem to spread more easily. A younger population can’t see the advantage of them. A poorer population fears getting sick from the vaccine and losing work. There is lower GP registration.
We are only a few weeks into offering vaccines to younger people. And sometimes the right vaccine is not in the right place. We are getting there, but slowly. Every technique from pop-up clinics to TikTok and counselling hesitant individuals is employed. And it is estimated that nationally vaccination has prevented 30,000 deaths and eight million new cases thus far.
But I caution whether the policy or the messaging on a full reopening next Monday, 19 July is the right approach. That doesn’t mean we should lock down again – the strains on so many areas of the economy have been too much for too long and it has been great to see public-facing venues coming to life again (more on this later). But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Firstly, there is the real risk to health especially of the more vulnerable whose resistance even post-vac is weaker. Secondly, there is the parlous condition of the NHS. The new Health Secretary thinks the backlog of treatments will rise to 13 million. Meanwhile, staff are exhausted and desperately need some rest and fewer not more hospital cases.
Of course vaccination will mean the peaks of the first two waves should be avoided but that doesn’t mean we won’t have a third wave – indeed we are headed into one on current plans, with new cases soaring across the country, and H&F currently top in London with 387 cases per 100,000 this week.
At the height of the second wave last winter there were 2,500 Covid-19 patients in London hospitals, 450 in intensive care. Currently those numbers are down to 375 and 70. But the projection is that with immediate precaution-free reopening we could reach a new peak of 1,500 patients, 300 in ICUs.
The response to the pandemic has been pitted with errors at government level. Failure to lockdown in good time, to supply PPE, to operate effective test and trace. This has been the greatest failure of public policy in the post-war period, and the inquiry into it should start now so we can learn lessons while they are most relevant. We were promised that this release from lockdown would follow the science – and until recently that seemed to be happening. Regular reviews of progress, and only going to the next stage when it was safe to do so.
But powerful political forces, mainly within the Tory Party and the media, have been urging the ‘learn to live with it’ or herd immunity option for some time and they can no longer be held off it seems.
So, we are no longer listening to the science, to the NHS or to those most at risk. From 19 July all bets are off. I shall continue to mask up in indoor spaces, to try and observe social distancing and to take every precaution against infection. I suspect many people reading this will too, and I applaud the Mayor of London for taking a lead in keeping the requirement to mask on public transport: a BMA survey showed over 90% of doctors support this.
Those who won’t take personal responsibility put us all at risk, but it is difficult to blame the public when signals from the Prime Minister down are at best ambiguous and at worst encouraging a big bang end to restrictions.
Whenever it comes, the inquiry into the pandemic will have some harsh verdicts for those who have lacked leadership and been swayed by self- and party interest. Thus far the deaths, long Covid cases and financial ruin of so many fellow citizens have been explained as accidental or at worst negligent. This time they will result from calculated decisions by government. They have let us down and continue to do so.
In May, the Queen’s Speech gave us a first insight into what this Government has planned post-pandemic. Now, some of the Bills listed in that preview have been published and are being debated in Parliament. It’s not good news.
Developers running the planning system. Private contractors with seats at the NHS top table. No relief for tenants and leaseholders trapped in unsafe high-rise buildings. And a concerted attack on the civil liberties of us all, but especially the most marginalised in society.
Planning. Most people who write to me think the planning system is already weighted against residents and in favour of developers. Well the Planning Bill is set to make this much worse. Developers pushing controversial schemes in H&F is nothing new: tall buildings in inappropriate locations, little or no affordable housing, failure to secure benefits for established communities.
These were features of the Tories in power in Hammersmith 2006-14, and we are still living with the consequences. But there were notable successes for objectors – the West Ken estates, Charing Cross Hospital, the Town Hall site. And the current council has established better relations with groups like the Hammersmith Society that argue for sympathetic and high-quality development.
But, if the Government gets its way, both councils and residents will be sidelined and central government/developer partnerships will dictate the future landscape.
The newly-debated Health Bill rows back on the failed Lansley ‘reforms’ introduced only ten years ago. No one will weep for them but under the guise of removing the requirement to tender services, it paves the way for much more of the cronyism and sweetheart deals between ministers and favoured contractors we have seen during the Covid crisis.
We have already witnessed in H&F how multi-national businesses like Babylon GP at Hand and Centene are colonising general practice. This is likely to spread throughout the NHS with shareholders rather than patients or clinicians calling the shots. Needless to say, the Bill does nothing for social care.
The Building Safety Bill finally saw daylight last week, four years after Grenfell. It is a huge disappointment. A lot of focus has rightly been on leaseholders, who may have to pay tens of thousands to correct defects they knew nothing about, and in the meantime are trapped in unsafe buildings. But social landlords and tenants are also victims. They get no help from Government, meaning the money that would have been available for repairs or building new affordable homes will now be diverted to pay for fire safety. There is nothing new in the Bill to help the victims or to call to account the developers and builders who have caused these systemic failures while boosting their profits over decades.
Rights and freedoms. If the Thatcher and Major governments were characterised by social conservatism (Section 28 and Back to Basics) and rolling back the welfare state, and the Coalition by austerity, what will Johnson’s time be remembered for? Judging by its programme for this session of Parliament it will be a full-on attack on civil liberties, free speech and minority rights. Here are some of their proposals.
- A Police Bill that criminalises peaceful protest and trespass
- A Nationalities and Borders Bill that threatens punishment for asylum seekers and those who help them
- Weakening judicial review to stop the higher courts ruling on unlawful acts of government
- Taking power to decide the General Election date from Parliament and giving it back to the Prime Minister, and putting a politician – the Lord Chancellor – back in charge of the legal system
- Reviewing the Human Rights Act – with malice aforethought
- Suppressing the votes of those who don’t generally vote Tory – under the guise of tackling non-existent voter fraud
That’s quite a list from the authoritarian right that Johnson is planning to deliver. The only freedom of speech that this government wishes to promote is that of holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, who are to be given free rein in our universities.
The anti-Brexit, anti-lockdown wing of the Tories continues to dictate policy. At least its intentions are clear. The people around Johnson have no moral compass at all. They are themselves law breakers or have been dismissed from previous governments for dishonesty and disloyalty, like Johnson himself. Their conduct over the racism directed at England footballers and cut in aid to the world’s poorest are new lows but absolutely in character. It is difficult to remember a time when the motives and the talents of those charged with leading the country were more base.
Signs of Summer
On a more cheerful note I attended the re-opening nights the Lyric and the Riverside this month (and will to the Bush soon). We are so lucky to have three outstanding theatres in the Borough, and that all have survived lockdown. The quality of the writing, acting and production of Out West and Happy Days is superb. I urge everyone to get tickets – to support the arts locally and because there are great nights out.
I spent the day with TfL’s property manager wandering around railway arches in Hammersmith a week or so ago. Arch Day is a chance to see the huge variety of uses our hundreds of railway arches are put to. We are all familiar with Shepherds Bush Market, but what about a climbing centre or ceramics classes? It all had special significance this year as we saw how SMEs had struggled through Covid with ingenuity and hard work.
We will still need the Covid-19 support networks for months and years to come. The H&F Foodbank just marked its 11th anniversary – reflecting on a huge achievement but depressed that it was still needed after a decade of austerity. West London Welcome held a celebration in St Paul’s Church for the many refugees it supports. It’s a great charity that campaigns against discrimination as well as providing practical help. I was pleased to raise their work in the Commons last month.
The food stations run by UPG at White City, Masbro and Edward Woods Estate are still going strong. I was delighted to see Jacquie Boyce and Caesar President from Eddie Woods awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to residents during the Covid emergency. But in fact Jacquie and Caesar have over 70 years’ service between them.
So many people have given so much to our community over the past 18 months, and I hope to see many more recognised for their efforts.
Finally, we have a major new blood donation centre at Westfield which I visited recently. If you haven’t given blood before it is easy and safe. Contact them here.
All these organisations need your help – practical or financial. If you are able to assist, their details are here:
I wish I had news of a breakthrough on the Bridge, but I have to be honest, I do not.
Three parallel lines of work are supposedly underway. The ferry – which I fear will be an expensive white elephant, but is also the safety net if the Bridge itself remains closed – is attracting opposition as well as support because of the elaborate arrangements made necessary by the water depths and tides. It has to go through a full planning process in both Richmond and Hammersmith and that means further delay.
The council’s engineers are doing what works and examination they can to see if the main Bridge could be opened to foot/cycle traffic in the short term. We should know the answer to this in a few weeks. Even this step would be a great relief, but it doesn’t resolve either the major stabilisation work needed or the overall repair.
The ‘taskforce’ is now revealed as a total Shapps sham, worse than useless, and the only intervention by government has been to demand the full cost is split equally between them, TfL and H&F. Given that the previous offer was that they would pay half dropping their offer to a third has not helped negotiations.
Shapps says he wants a memorandum of understanding to this effect, but the only way TfL can afford this is by borrowing money from other essential projects and the only way H&F can is by levying a toll. And so we go around in circles.
As to who is causing this intolerable delay, I say follow the money. TfL has paid £16 million so far, H&F £8 million. That is already more than for any other Thames bridge works in recent times. As for Shapps, he was in the borough last month to start work on the HS2 station at Old Oak. Cost to Government: £1.67 billion.
Know your boundaries
Last month the Boundary Commission for England set out its proposals for the revisions to Parliamentary seats. In H&F this would mean big changes. Part of the north of the borough (College Park & Old Oak and Wormholt) would be added onto the Ealing, Acton seat; part of West Ken and Fulham Reach would join south Fulham and Chelsea. The rest of the Borough – White City, Shepherds Bush Green and all of Hammersmith – would form a new seat with Chiswick.
You can examine these proposals – indeed those for the whole of England HERE. And you can comment on them until 2 August. After that there is a two-year process of horse trading until they are finally approved on 1 July 2023 (meaning any election before then would be fought on current boundaries). Note these do not affect the Borough boundaries only those of the Parliamentary seats.
The Commission genuinely wants to hear our views and these can range from simple comments suggesting a different name for a seat to remapping the whole of London – as one ex-Fulham councillor has done here www.agrayarea.info/boundaries.pdf, suggesting Shepherds Bush stays together and is paired with north Kensington. Other versions would see only two seats covering the borough as now.
I am working on my own response and will publish that shortly. Feel free to agree or disagree with me when I do or put your own ideas forward. Getting the constituency right for the area is second only to getting the MP right!
A friend of 40 years and a wonderful public servant died this week. Councillor Colin Aherne suffered a heart attack while surgeons tried to save him at Hammersmith Hospital. Colin was 77 but as full of energy and mischief as when I first met him in the early 1980s. We were elected to H&F Council on the same day in 1986 and served 20 years together, as friends and colleagues.
Colin represented Wormholt and later White City for 35 years and for 30 of those was the Chief (or opposition) Whip. From which you may gather that he didn’t take any nonsense. He was a fearless fighter for his constituents, resolute but fair and totally honest. And beneath the army-sergeant exterior (he saw active service in Malaya before I was born) he was a kind, rather soft-hearted person who could never walk by someone in need.
He loved Wormholt Park School where he chaired the governing body for 30 years. He still had much to give, and we will mourn his loss deeply. Colin was a remarkable man, well described in this moving tribute by the current council leader Stephen Cowan.
Rest in Peace Colin.