This is a very serious public health crisis

I’m sure that most people are already aware of this, but just in case please allow me to really push this warning home: This Covid pandemic presents a very serious public health situation. On Friday afternoon I ‘attended’ two events that really underlined the this message, a briefing for Dorset councillors from Sam Crowe, the Director of Public Health Dorset, and the monthly meeting Dorset councillors in West Dorset have with our MP, Chris Loder. Two particular messages emerged from these meetings: The situation is more serious than many people realise; and many people are not even taking the same precautions as they did during the first lockdown back March. Certainly from my perspective it is nowhere near as quiet out there as is was first time round when, on going out for my daily walk, I remember being struck by just how quiet it was. The A35 was practically empty of traffic, even in the middle of the day, with the sound of bird song replacing the constant background rumble of traffic.

The most recent figures for the number of Covid cases in Dorset are really quite alarming. The number of cases per 100,000 people in the seven days up to 4th January was 347.7, up from 161.7 the previous week. That’s an increase of 115% in a week! And just to underline the severity of the situation further, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has today warned that hospitals face their “worst crisis in living memory”. What this means is that if you or a loved one contract the virus and are unfortunate enough to be one of the unlucky one that requires hospital treatment, or that you require other, non-Covid related urgent treatment, that treatment may not be immediately available. And please, let us not distract ourselves by starting an argument about underfunding or the creeping privatisation of the NHS. These arguments can, and have to wait until after the crisis is over. Our priority at the moment must be to prevent the spread of the virus and ease the pressure on our hospitals.

Changing topic completely, for me, one of the big political battles waiting to break out concerns planning permission for listed buildings. I sit on both Bridport Town Council’s Planning Committee and Dorset Council’s Area Planning Committee for west and south Dorset, and am getting increasingly frustrated by our inability to approve necessary energy efficiency and generation measures for listed buildings. In particular my concerns relate to the siting of solar panels on roofs and the replacement of old windows with double glazing. I fully accept that all applications must be taken on merit and assessed as individual cases, but in general the reason often given for refusal of permission is that the appearance is not in keeping with the historical nature of the building or the conservation area. There must come a point when we regard making buildings, all buildings, as energy efficient as possible, and taking every opportunity to locally generate electricity from renewable sources, more important than the historic appearance. If the latter was our main concern we should be restoring outside toilets and open fires / removing inside toilets and central heating from many building in Bridport. Put bluntly, what’s the point of admiring the aesthetics of old buildings if in doing so we risk allowing our climate to make the environment in which they are situated unliveable?

Unfortunately, some of the fears I expressed last week about Donald Trump and his ‘army’ of loyal (and armed) supporters came true this week when, at his incitement, they stormed the Capitol building in Washington during the Congressional process of confirming Joe Biden as President. My positive spin on this is that Trump’s behaviour has caused so many people to distance themselves from him that although five people were killed this was nowhere near as bad as things could have got if widespread open revolt had broken out – revolt that I now think increasingly unlikely. I am by no means a fan of the US politics, but I have been feeling genuinely sorry for them this week. Trump has been a global embarrassment. Just imagine how Peking or Moscow have viewed these events. Just imagine their reactions when, in 10 days time, their television screens are full of images of him being escorted from the White House in a straight-jacket!

Back to work…

Today is my first day ‘back at work’. Apart from checking emails for anything pressing, I’ve done next to nothing council / politics related for nearly two weeks. During that time I’ve also largely avoided social media (though could not resist the odd check on what mad comments have been emanating from Donald Trump’s Twitter account) and totally avoided this blog. So, what’s been happening? Well, I suppose the two ‘biggies’ are that the UK has got its sovereignty back and is now fully in control of its destiny. That comment, by the way, in case you think that something serious has befallen my mental state in these last two weeks, was said ironically. The other is that the Covid virus is showing no indication of getting bored with its assault on our health and way of life.

The Covid alert level in Dorset has now been raised to ‘very high’. As a result of a significant rise in reported cases and growing pressure on our hospitals, just before New Year we were placed in Tier 3 – and as I write this another total lockdown seems inevitable. This, though, did not stop a number of young people gathering on Eype beach around a bonfire to see in the New Year. I first heard about this when a reporter from the Dorset Echo called me for a comment. I generally do not like being asked to comment on something that I know nothing about and when my only information is what the questioner passes to me. Despite being reported in The Sun newspaper (a serious source of news that has never been known to sensationalise a story in order to sell itself) I have since been informed that the party was not large, was well behaved, and that the group both tried to ‘socially distance’ and cleared up after themselves. Nevertheless, they should not have gathered.

I told the reporter that whilst I understood why they did gather, out of respect for our fellow citizens it is important to keep to the rules and for each of us to do our bit to stop the spread of the virus until such times (hopefully about in about 3 months) when the vaccines have got it under control. Yes, I know that many people acutely feel that their freedoms are being taken from them. And yes, I really missed going to the pub on New Year’s eve before heading to the midnight gathering in Bridport’s Bucky Doo Square. But, as the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin has argued, there are two types of freedom – freedom to, and freedom from. Humans are social animals and should be free to meet and socialise with fellow humans without restriction. But, because we are social, we are also members of a community of fellow human beings, not just individual creatures only concerned with our own self-interest. This means that we need to respect other peoples’ right to freedom from unnecessary hurt and harm. We have the duty to respect the need to protect others from unnecessary exposure to the virus.

I genuinely think that most people do not understand just how interconnected we are – interconnected to our fellow humans, interconnected with other animals, and interconnected with our wider environment. This means that what we do cannot be isolated from its effects upon others, upon the lives of animals, and upon planet Earth as a whole. Take climate change as an example – our climate affects all humans, all animals, and all habitats. This means that whatever happens elsewhere can, and often will, have an effect upon us. And the more humans become globally connected through travel, the media and trade, the more our lives will be affected by events happening elsewhere. This also means that, increasingly, we are not in control of everything that happens to us. We have never had control. We cannot take back control. We can never be totally sovereign as a nation. But of even greater significance is the fact that the things which pose the greatest threat to us (climate change, global pandemics, economic collapse, terrorism) are global in their nature, and can only be dealt with globally through cooperation. This cooperation was much easier to achieve as a member of the EU. I think that our leaving the EU was a retrograde step for the UK, the EU and the world.

I’m still finding Donald Trump a source of amusement in these dark days. Will he go with grace, with dignity? Or will he be carried screaming and sobbing from the White House? The next important event in this melodrama comes on Wednesday when the Senate are due to formally accept the result of the electoral college and acknowledge Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. If they vote as expected Trump has very few cards to play. But those he does hold could quickly turn my amusement into serious concern. My background fear is that his words incite some of his less than rational (and armed) supporters onto the streets in protest. If this happens things could turn very nasty. Let us hope that Covid and Brexit remain the dominant news items for the next few weeks.