Beaches are very much a matter of taste - and timing. Perilous for Government ministers in times of crisis, and for unwary walkers when the tide comes in too fast. A temporary home for sea anglers. Delightful in Connemara where breaking waves turn sea water into chilled champagne. And delightful, once you’ve avoided the sea-urchins, at the foot of the French Pyrenees where Matisse and the Fauvists came to paint.
The dazzling azure waters of the Mediterranean are seductive. Floating in the blue is a cheap, if partial, experience of weightlessness without being shot twenty miles into the air sitting on a fiery bomb. But in Summer you must dodge the ranks of human flesh cooking on sun-loungers to reach the sea. And then there are the jellyfish, water-skiers, speed boats, wind-surfers. Give me the ever changing grey, gritty waters of the North Sea off the East Anglia coast any day – or almost any day: sombre and Sebaldian or sparkling in the sun, crashing in on a strong easterly with spray turning to mist, or lapping gently and flat all the way to a sharp horizon, the shoreline temporarily domesticated by holidaymakers, children and dogs doing things you do on the beach. Dunwich with its choice of pebbles at high tide, emerging strips of sand at low, is a good place to begin acquiring a taste for the North Sea. No sun-loungers here.
Perhaps humanity evolved at the sea’s edge, experimented with being bipedal, taking advantage of the sea’s buoyancy. There does seem to be something hard-wired about beach behaviour. Family groups position themselves, in little camps, facing the sea at discreet distances from each other with their surrounding clutter: windbreaks, beach chairs, thermos flasks, backpacks. Small children – and parents - make sand-castles with intense concentration and seriousness, collect sea-water in buckets and dig out moats. But crossing that line between the beach and the sea is another matter: frantic retreats and compulsory screams at even the smallest wave whilst parents sit or lie or hurry to the rescue. The whole picture waiting for an Impressionist to capture its harmony and essential serenity.
Autumn, when swimmers have given up hope that the sea will get warm, is a surprisingly good time to start getting that taste for the North Sea. One or two fishing boats with huts for winding gear, a shed where retired fishermen can have tea early in the morning next to a fish-and-chip shop in a large free car-park, two dedicated benches sheltered from the wind. Even the occasional solitary seal, black dog’s head scanning the beach. Under the water the remains of the mediaeval town submerged by tidal changes, where a submarine could bump into a church tower. Inland it’s marshland, cows and skylarks. Turn through 360 degrees any season and it’s all beautiful.
By October, coach parties and school-trips have dwindled and sea anglers become the sole true occupants of the beach. There are plenty of brisk dog walkers and the occasional detectorists following the line of the cliffs, methodically sweeping the pebbles and sand like security officials dealing with a radioactive leak from nearby Sizewell, always one lucky day away from an Anglo-Saxon horde of gold, making do meanwhile with lost rings, silver groats and a skull or two from a mediaeval graveyard that is slipping into the sea as the cliffs crumble.
This is the time and place to talk with fishermen and to hear the lovely, but increasingly rare, gentle Suffolk accent, the beach a special place where you have permission to chat to strangers or simply be alone. And it is usually men fishing. They walk determinedly from the car park, laden with long black holders with their rods and tripods and one-man canvas shelters or big black umbrellas against the elements, plus modest provisions for many hours fishing. When they’ve chosen a spot quite high up the beach, there will soon be three lines taught against the current, running out to sea well above head-height, and similar little encampments dotted along the seashore. It is a timeless scene.
Talking to fishermen and watching them cast is another beach pleasure. With a ‘multiplier’ reel and correct handling of the rod, press the button on the spool and the lead weight with hook and bait flies an enormous distance through the air. The most skilled can accurately cast two hundred metres or more. A turning, high or low tide is generally thought to be a good time to land fish. A ‘bass sea’ is one that is rough. You catch flatfish, dabs, on calmer days. But these fishermen are not just Man as hunter and provider. Nor are they simply escapees from work and family. They are Man as contemplative - and when asked they agree. Those one-man shelters are temporary hermitages, the fishermen short-stay hermits gazing at the power of Nature. Sometimes two friends fish together but there’s not a lot of conversation. The sight and sound of the sea, its spiritual effect, is deeply calming.
There, contemplating the immensity of the ocean, with time measured in tides, and space by the shifting sea, the Dunwich angler experiences some of the wonder of creation, disturbed only by freeing a line that has just got snagged. And watching and talking with them on Dunwich beach you begin to understand why Jesus of Nazareth chose men fishing with nets on the vast lake, the Sea of Galilee, to be his companions.
See TheArticle 21/10/2021
We live in a sloganocracy. ‘Global Britain’, our foreign policy slogan is emerging as the saddest and most deceptive of them all. A piece of bombast directed at a domestic audience suggesting a big vision and concealing the decline of Britain’s international influence.
We had just a taste of our actual conduct of international relations last week. Britain is receiving a windfall of $27.4 billion (nearly £20 billion) in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) from the IMF. This is our share of $650 billion given for distribution globally to support poorer nations through the COVID pandemic. Other richer countries, honouring the spirit of this emergency fund, will be adding the money to their current planned Aid expenditure. Our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, staying within his reduced ceiling of 0.5% of national income (GDP) for international Aid, will now be injecting a large part of the IMF windfall income into our Aid budget instead of adding it to the total. Despite claiming that the reduction in Aid from 0.7% of GDP would, in time, be reversed, Sunak’s actions are going in the opposite direction. In order to ease our national debt the erosion of our global commitment to the world’s poor continues and with it Britain’s soft power declines, as well as our reputation as a country which meets its obligations and keeps its promises.
Last week in Portugal Lord David Frost, Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe, announced another foreign policy démarche. In negotiations with the EU aimed at solving problems arising from the post-BREXIT Irish Sea trade border he is now proposing that the Northern Ireland Protocol (integral to the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by him, signed and promoted by Boris Johnson and supported by Parliament in July 2021) be scrapped. By most informed accounts, the EU negotiating team led by Maroš Šefčovič, EU Commissioner for BREXIT, concerned at the impact of current regulations on movement of goods across the border, was offering a helpful package of mitigating measures to the potential benefit of the UK, including Northern Ireland as well as to the Republic of Ireland and the EU. With advance knowledge of this significant, concrete expression of goodwill and concern, Lord Frost has suddenly introduced the issue of dispute arbitration and the question of the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the EU’s highest court. Global Britain is now presenting itself as a country that either didn’t understand what it was signing, or has no qualms about reneging on an international agreement with 27 other countries, not least its neighbour, Ireland.
There are two things worryingly wrong with this sudden swerve away from problem-solving within the terms of the Protocol towards Britain requiring discussion of immutable Principles such as sovereignty and presenting unilaterally a new Protocol altogether. The first is that, having spent months negotiating it, ten months ago the UK signed a Protocol which we are now repudiating as some kind of alien imposition, ‘EU overreach’. Who now is going to trust the UK under its present management, or indeed any future management, to honour its commitments?
Secondly there is anecdotal evidence that Boris Johnson, in his entrenched the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me exceptionalism, never intended to comply with the Protocol in the first place. Anyone who has taken part in any serious negotiations between, say, management, staff or trades union, will recognise this last minute introduction of a weighty but marginal bone of contention as the wrecking-ball swinging in the air, not the ‘tough negotiating position’ applauded by some of the Press. Again, Britain’s standing in the world is sacrificed for a possible few percentage points in the opinion polls. Foreign policy as a Punch and Judy show for a domestic audience.
Boris Johnson was swept to power on a wave of Brexiteer sentiment casting himself as the tough guy who, on behalf of the British people (or about half of them), stood up to a bunch of unreasonable, intransigent foreigners across the Channel and ‘got it done’. Perhaps he now calculates this role remains the best formula for arresting a threatening fall in popularity as the British public begin to wonder if a mixture of jokes and jolliness is all that is needed in hard and uncertain times. Unfortunately it is a formula that brings damaging discredit on the UK from beyond the white cliffs of Dover. The Queen is not the only one who is worrying about who will come to Glasgow next month. It is difficult not to think the global reputation of our Prime Minister may be relevant as Heads of State assess their relations with the UK and decide whether to turn up at COP26.
When it comes to foreign policy there is a further serious danger represented by the Johnson rules-don’t-apply stance. It is not just that when autocracies such as Russia also break the rules we can end up with polonium in the tea and neurotoxin on the door-handle. We signal in our own foreign policy the values we hold dear and which should form the texture of our own governance and civil society. The undermining of our values abroad doesn’t stay abroad.
Democracy is based on an implicit social contract and amidst overlapping crises trust in its implementation is easily eroded. With no firm reliable hand on the tiller trust in government and politics is lost. Just as the international order and avoidance of violent conflict require a scaffolding of rules, conventions and mutual trust, so does our own society.
It is a sign of how unprepared we are for a future dominated by contending power blocs that our government is hell-bent on distancing itself from both the EU’s European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg - and is correspondingly allergic to judicial review at home. The two European courts’ internationally agreed rules have served European democracies well. If democracies are to stand firm in the face of vast concentrations of unaccountable power in China and Russia, the rule of law and an abiding commitment to human rights are two necessary foundations. And to accompany cooperation on security, political coordination of foreign policy and diplomacy with our international partners. Neither the EU nor the UK, for different reasons, currently offer outstanding examples of such policy collaboration.
Meanwhile Global Britain awaits 800 European butchers, marching off the ferries cleavers at the ready, and a great new trade deal with Vanuatu.
See also TheArticle 21/10/2021
Last week, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) approval of the ‘roll out’ of a vaccine against malaria made the news. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) had been working on finding an effective malaria vaccine for thirty years. Stage Three trials, the final stage, took five years and were completed in 2015. Pilot implementation in Africa began in 2019. Before COVID such a WHO approval would scarcely have merited a paragraph. That’s some measure of how vaccines are on everyone’s minds. It also says something about the response to any killer or debilitating disease which is confined to the tropics. This is not a swipe at GSK particularly, nor at their perseverance, but comparison with the incredibly speedy design and production of anti-COVID vaccine does inadvertently highlight pharmaceutical companies’ research – and commercial - priorities.
By the end of the 20th century malaria still caused over 800,000 deaths worldwide every year most of them children under five and pregnant women, mostly living in sub-Saharan Africa. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set a reduction target to reverse the incidence of the parasite and to halve deaths from malaria by 2015. The roll out of a new malaria vaccine, the first against any parasite, represents a collaborative response by GSK, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Seattle-based health not-for-profit Program for Appropriate Technology in Health known as PATH, an impressive outfit with some 1,600 staff. It is another step towards the goal of eradicating disease that emphasises the importance of partnerships.
Vaccines trigger our immune system to attack invading viruses. You might think that immune systems prompted by a vaccine would be easily aroused against the two malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, large bodies when compared to COVID viruses. But you’d be wrong. Plasmodium is like some Alien life form transforming itself several times in its life-cycle: merozoites bursting out of red blood cells causing fever and turning into gametocytes, oocysts taking up residence in the salivary glands of certain types of female mosquitoes, merozoites finding such a home-from-home in our livers that our immune system ignores them. Homo Sapiens and Plasmodium have known each other for a very long time and the parasite has adapted and flourished. Finding the right stage of the parasite’s development to intervene, zapping the parasite before it gets into the liver, or into the red blood cells, was only the beginning of the long haul to find an effective vaccine.
The danger of the vaccine being mistakenly taken for a magic bullet represents a problem for GSK. The present vaccine alone is at most 40% effective. Yet combined with seasonal treatments, two anti-malarial drugs administered during each of the year’s most dangerous four months - after West Africa’s short rainy season – it does create a high level of protection from the disease. But scaling up such combined treatments will make heavy demands on Africa’s fragile health systems. And for malaria to be eradicated, established preventative measures must continue alongside vaccination.
Bed-nets impregnated with insecticides harmless to people contributed to the halving of malaria deaths around the world from an estimated 839,000 in 2000 to 438,000 in 2015 - though there was only an 18% drop in infections. American financier, Ray Chambers, appointed UN malaria envoy in February 2008, marshalled funding that contributed towards a global campaign that delivered a billion bed-nets and prevented a total 6.2 million deaths. Even this simple solution was not as simple as it appeared. It required explaining the causes of malaria so that people understood what bed-nets were for and how to use them –- and ensured they persisted keeping their young children tucked at bedtime in despite the nets reducing any cooling air-flow.
The World Bank bed-net programme in Sierra Leone and Nigeria was a case in point. Nets were delivered efficiently but too often they got used as bridal veils, or fishing nets, or sold, or not hung properly. Health education was necessary. And it will be just as essential to persuade people that besides getting vaccinated the other protections against malaria remain vital: correct use of bed-nets, cleaning up standing water where mosquitoes breed, access to rapid diagnostic kits – because misdiagnosis can be fatal. Changing parents’ understanding and behaviour, as I learned in Sierra Leone, needs a nationally planned malaria control programme involving everything from radio jingles to engaging chiefs, local elders, imams, sheikhs, pastors and priests as health educators within their communities. I watched religious leaders preaching sermons and khutba on parents’ moral duty to protect the under-fives as well as training others in their communities to undertake house-to-house visits introducing malaria prevention messages.
Malaria is now a tropical disease. But that is because in the last century countries with substantial budgets for health and well-developed health systems succeeded in producing effective anti-malarial drugs and eliminating mosquitoes and thus the disease. Eight US Presidents caught malaria. George Washington was infected in Virginia aged 17. Abraham Lincoln while growing up in Illinois. Deaths from malaria in Britain’s marshy coastal areas only began to decline in the 19th century. In 1861 Britain was reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in serial form. The story opens with Pip, the book’s ‘hero’, staring at his parents’ gravestone and describing those of his dead brothers as, ‘little stone lozenges each about a foot long…arranged in a neat row’. It is in that graveyard that Pip and the escaped convict Magwitch first meet. The setting for this encounter, St. James, Cooling, in ‘the marsh country down by the river’ in Kent, was on one of Dickens favourite walks, and the ‘stone lozenges’ referred to can still be seen today. They marked the graves of a large family whose children had died of “the ague”, malaria.
Malaria could be eradicated in Africa but it would require better co-ordinated national malaria campaigns, strengthening of health systems, and reversing our cuts in international development aid. Success to date has involved supportive governments and complex international partnerships. In Sierra Leone religious leaders, key influencers, reached five million people with national malaria programme messages. Ebola and the pandemic have slowed the momentum created by the Millennium Development Goals. When less than 1% of people in Africa have received COVID jabs, GSK’s announcement may seem almost irrelevant. But the new vaccine has the capacity to further reduce malaria deaths from the present over 400,000 a year. It is a significant further step towards the goal of eradication. So perhaps not a herogram for GSK but at least two cheers.
See TheAricle 12/10/2021
Climate Change is a perilous turning point in human history. We are beginning to acknowledge this but are still far from achieving the level and intensity of economic change required to meet the threat. The kind of planned, co-ordinated, radical action by governments that is needed is just not happening. As Greta Thunberg put it at the September Youth4Climate conference in Milan, “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action”. Lies and half-measures condemn her generation to be Climate Change’s victims. They will be living with its dire consequences. Climate Change is about the betrayal of youth.
Hope, along with faith and charity (or love), is traditionally known to Christians as one of the theological virtues, one of the habits or skills that promote moral conduct. These virtues are found in St Paul’s Epistles - but not in Aristotle - and are seen as a divine gift. They and the moral conduct they promote, carry sacred authority for Christians who are enjoined to hope. But much of the West has to do its hoping – telling the truth and acting courageously with urgency - without the sacred authority.
Climate change is not just a turning point in human history it is as great a moral issue as the threat of nuclear holocaust and for the same reason. The moral conduct that can significantly reduce the peril has to characterise governments as well as citizens, within the context of geo-politics. But geo-politics is dominated by a very limited concept of national interest. Foreign policy, moreover, perpetually looks over its shoulder at public opinion and domestic policy. The geo-political world is not accustomed to acting on the principle that the purpose of politics is justice, a proposition elaborated by the thirteenth century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In the case of Climate Change today, it is justice for future generations. Without massive public pressure, based on a moral argument about responsibility to future generations, governments’ action will not be commensurate with the magnitude of the threat.
No contemporary political system or government wins prizes for effective action to curb global warming. The Chinese Communist Party could but, despite coercive and authoritarian rule, isn’t giving up its damaging addiction to coal as an internal energy source. It tries to make itself into a secular version of sacred authority, threatening a dictatorial surveillance dystopia with ugly results. In democratic societies, because of the dominance of individualism and libertarianism, countering Climate Change becomes a matter of personal choice; you can modify your behaviour – what you eat, how you travel, energy use, or not. But to choose to do nothing can seem justified when you acknowledge how little difference individual actions will make without dramatic political and economic change by the major carbon emitters, the USA, China and India. How many trees and vegans, for example, are needed to offset China’s use of coal?
The world’s faith communities, led by Pope Francis, are taking action whilst governments seem to have been on a drag-anchor moving away from the binding 2015 international treaty agreed in Paris and committing us to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. ‘’ On 4 October, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, forty leaders of the world’s major religions together with leading Climate Change scientists met in the Vatican. They had gathered together as faith leaders to sign their appeal, Faith & Science Towards COP26 worked on since February, and handed to them by two representatives of the September Youth4Climate conference in Milan.
"We plead with the international community, gathered at COP26, to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship" reads the summary addressed to the participants of COP26 to be held in Glasgow next month. Underlining the importance of the occasion the Pope then presented copies to the two President-Designates of COP26, Alok Sharma and the Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio. (Italy and Britain, chairing the G20 and G7 respectively this year, have been supporting preparations for this religious summit). "COP26 in Glasgow represents an urgent summons to provide effective responses to the unprecedented ecological crisis and the crisis of values that we are presently experiencing, and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations…Future generations will never forgive us if we miss the opportunity to protect our common home," said the Pope.
British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and spokesman for this gathering of faiths, has emphasised how the different religions saw ‘nature, world, environment as a gift to us…not something we are here to abuse’. In the words of Sally Axworthy, Britain’s former ambassador to the Holy See, we need to “moderate our desires, rethink our economic model to be within the bounds of what nature can sustain, [my italics] and focus on support for those least responsible for but most affected by climate change. The dialogue with the scientists has been creative – facts and values coming together – or as one speaker put it, enlightened passion”.
This consensus between youth, scientists and the world’s faiths, sealed in a symbolic event, is a hopeful sign of truth-telling. We urgently need facts, values and virtues to be aligned. We urgently need governments to heed the faiths’ vision that countering Climate Change is a moral obligation. And to heed the scientists whose disclosure of facts must dispel our tendency for denial. "We have in the past 100 years declared war on creation”, declared the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in Rome. It must end.
Catholics are taught that inaction and half measures, the absence of truth, can be grievous sins of omission. The secular world should perhaps settle for a different description: crimes against humanity.
See also TheArticle 05/10/2021
When a lot of things go wrong at the same time the result is often a high stakes blame game involving three players: the general public, the mass media and the government. If any two concur on a suitable target the third will not be long in coming on-side. After over eleven years in power, a Tory government might be expected to get some blame for a National Health Service starved of adequate funding and staffing. A cherished national institution staggering under the weight of rhetoric, re-organisation, high expectations and prolonged pressures, serving an overweight, aging and unhealthy population without an integrated health and social care system for the frail and vulnerable, but with a door marked ‘private’ available for those with the money so they won’t need to wait their turn, has for the last two years been overwhelmed by the needs of COVID sufferers and the responsibility for curbing the spread of the virus. We do not hear a mea culpa from government nor are we likely to.
But someone must be to blame. Enter, telephone in one hand, stethoscope in the other, your local GP.
When it comes to government incompetence there is always recourse to deflecting attention elsewhere, ideally to some group deemed blameworthy. In Britain this tactic leans heavily on the dark arts of the right-wing press. The Daily Mail detects pockets of popular anger and resentment like a well-trained police sniffer dog. The paper’s campaign to reverse the decrease in face-to-face appointments with ‘the family doctor’ is a study in misrepresentation. We learned from the Mail on-line of 16 September that it may have led to “an 88% spike in stillbirths during the pandemic” - despite the article showing no connection whatsoever between GP appointments and stillbirths. There is no connection. An editorial error apparently occurred. Understandable as the Mail was having to compete with the The Telegraph’s headline “Vets serve pets better than GPs do the Public” of 26 August.
The Mail followed up by intimating that GPs had fewer consultations on Fridays because they were taking long weekends off. I looked at the analysis of phone calls for a week in May this year before the COVID infection rate began climbing and when vaccinations were in full swing to a northern England practice with – below average - 5,500 patients. There were over 1,350 incoming calls on the Monday but only 451 on the Friday. Could there be some correlation between lower demand at the end of the week and the lower level of consultations on Fridays compared with other days?
But what of the main beneficiary of the press campaign against GPs, the government? Our new Minister of Health, Sajid Javid, entered the blame-game on 14 September. “It is high time”, he said, “GPs started operating in the way they did before the pandemic and offering face-to-face appointments to anyone who wants one”. Well, he was relatively new in the job. He knew there weren’t overall enough GPs but he might have wondered if extending the average GP working day – which would be needed if GPs were to comply- from ten hours to 24 hours was a feasible idea.
And what of the general public and their perceptions? The work that GPs do when they are not face to face with patients is rarely taken into account by people anxious to see a doctor. For example, apart from phone consultations, there is routine management of the practice, keeping patient data up-to-date, checking test results, liaising with clinicians in hospitals, acting as a substitute for unavailable clinicians, visits to care homes, and so on. And then there is the additional demand, 3.2 million more patients since 2015, and at a time of falling GP numbers. Because COVID dissuaded patients from checking on medical symptoms, many more are now contacting their GP with serious conditions requiring immediate attention – doctors describe themselves as ‘holding more risk’. And the risks are rising.
By dog-whistle and more blatant means, the government and right-wing press have been encouraging the public, who have no way of observing the daily work-load of a GP, to think that they (who pay for the NHS through their taxes) are being short-changed by fat-cat doctors. As long ago as 2017 the Mail was working on creating resentment at GPs’ income asserting that they were earning £200,000 per annum. In reality such earnings were achieved by only 270 out of the country’s 28,000 fully-qualified and full-time equivalent GPs, those who managed a group of practices counting many thousands of patients. The average GP’s income is about £98,000 comparable to that of other professionals in senior and responsible positions who expect to work at least a 10 hour day.
Doctors aren’t saints. They do seek to maximise their incomes. A GP practice is an unusual form of business, with partners and salaried employees providing services to the public and relying most often exclusively on public funds. Increasing the number of employees deployed to answer phones or interact face-to-face with the public would increase the practice’s costs. Hanging on the line for ages irritates healthy people let alone someone feeling ill and anxious. But things have gone beyond understandable irritation to verbal abuse of practice staff and in one mid-September incident in Manchester a serious physical attack on four staff members leaving two hospitalised with head injuries.
Undermining this country’s front-line of health care, its 28,000 GPs – yes there are not enough - might sound a smart political tactic but is utterly irresponsible. GPs are the gateway to hospitals and further treatment. They ensure that unnecessary demand for specialist treatment, tests and medication is controlled. For this system to work it is essential to maintain the bond of trust between doctor and patient at its heart. That trust is now under threat at a time when it is most needed. Trust is easy to destroy and so difficult to re-establish.
Of course General Practice can always be improved. Government should encourage innovative ways to meet the extraordinary demands now being made on it. But it is time to stop targeting GPs in the blame-game before it is too late and the sour conflict generated by a divisive political culture infects and grievously damages one of our national treasures.
See TheArticle 01/10/2021