This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole.
In my view, there are multiple places that we could start.
One place to start is with the more bizarre moments of 2020. We could talk about the stockpiling of toilet roll, the lack of paracetamol in our supermarket, or Barnard Castle becoming a Specsavers.
Another place to start is the devastation that COVID has brought. We could talk about the thousands and thousands of people who lost their lives, the thousands more who are still living with the neurological effects of a virus that until recently we knew little about, or the way that poor mental health has skyrocketed as a result of lockdowns and social isolation.
As I consider all of these places for us to start, I am reminded of the narrator in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea who tells us that ‘something has happened to me.’ But he can’t quite tell us what. He can just say he looks around, and feels disorientated.
I wager that’s a feeling we’re all familiar with this year.
On March 24th, the novel-coronavirus, COVID-19, was starting to get out of control in the UK. 422 people had already died in the UK as a result of its deadly influence, and thousands more were predicted to be infected. Unlike the lockdowns that followed, therefore, there were few people who thought that Boris Johnson was wrong to impose a lockdown on the country. A proper lockdown that is, unlike the one that came in November (though we’ll get to that).
The lockdown ploughed on. First three weeks. Everybody getting out on their doorstep on Thursday evening, and clapping for the NHS/carers/key workers – everybody had somebody in mind when they did that, because this was personal.
Another three weeks went by. Every day, we watched with horror as more people and more people died – in life we did not know them but in death we all felt connected. On June 5th, the number of people who had died in the UK exceeded 40,000.
And then, less than a month later, on July 4th, the pubs were re-opened. In August, Eat Out to Help Out was launched. In September, schools and universities began to reopen.
In October, the number of positive cases began to creep up again. The tier system was introduced. In November, the tier system was discarded in place of yet another lockdown – a lockdown that was so poorly put together, that the public were so frustrated with, that compliance sunk.
In December, lockdown was lifted, and October’s tier system was re-introduced, with much harsher measures. Boris Johnson promised that there would be a 5-day Christmas period in which three households could mix. On December 19th, he changed his mind, and threw in a fourth tier for good measure. And told us all about a new, faster spreading, variant of the virus.
Oh, and then we found out about another one on December 23rd.
Allow me to be absolutely clear: government policy was responsible for the way in which COVID-19 spread through care homes like wildfire. In March, when it became obvious that things were not going well, hospitals needed to free up space for a predicted wave of COVID-positive patients. So, a vast swathe of people were discharged to care settings – people who were not tested for COVID.
Let’s replay that: as the spread of COVID became uncontrollable, people who had not been tested were discharged to care settings where a population of vulnerable people were living. For individuals who were confined to their bed, or who were able to understand what was happening, a 14-day isolation period could begin. But for individuals with cognitive impairments, such as dementia-related illnesses, it was simply not possible to enforce this isolation.
Thus, a combination of insufficient amounts of PPE, and the general impossibility of keeping somebody isolated who has cognitive impairments, were the perfect recipe for a COVID-19 outbreaks. And that’s exactly what happened.
As one can imagine, managers were not particularly keen on accepting the transfer of untested or COVID-positive people into their care homes. But did they really have a choice? As Sky News reported in May, and as carers in homes knew already, councils were threatening to withhold funding unless care homes did exactly what they knew would be a disaster.
And then, in July, came the biggest joke of all. After being asked about the high COVID-related death toll in care homes, our Prime Minister told reporters that ‘we discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have’. A desperate attempt to lay the blame at the door of carers and their managers, it was insult to every single carer up and down this country who have become the de-facto family of their residents.
The only door that blame should be laid at is the shiny black one that marks the threshold of Number 10, Downing Street.
‘Abusers always work from home’
2020 is the year that many of us spent more time at home than ever before. For a lot of us, home is a place of sanctuary and safety. But we know that this is not always the case.
In November, the ONS published a report explaining that ‘domestic abuse accounted for one in five crimes reported to police…after the first national lockdown.’ Between April and June, 40 police forces reported that ‘there were 64,283 domestic abuse-related arrests.’ And that only accounts for those individuals who were reported to the police.
Given that reports in the North East revealed many of the culprits were not previously known to the police, we cannot know for sure how much, exactly, abuse has risen over the past year. One man told the BBC, under the pseudonym Zack, that his boyfriend had never been violent towards him until the first lockdown, when he began to suffer ‘a series of physical attacks.’ The question that lingers is how many more Zacks are suffering in silence.
A Panorama report found that ‘two-thirds of women in abusive relationships have suffered more violence from their partners during the pandemic’, whilst a Freedom of Information request revealed that UK police forces received a domestic abuse call every 30 seconds. And that’s only in the first seven weeks of lockdown.
The retreat of NHS services during the past year has made it even harder for survivors to access counselling. And the general inability to see friends and family has meant that informal support has been unavailable, with one person telling Women’s Aid that ‘it’s hell on earth living 24/7 now with my abuser and I can’t get out to escape and put distance between us when I feel tension rising.’
There are two problems here. The first is that lockdowns, and subsequent restrictions, have acted as a facilitator for abuse. The second is that, in the name of public health, support for people who are, and who have been, abused was hard to access. This is a detestable state of affairs, and one that any future COVID restrictions should address.
Contact information for organisations that offer support for the issues raised in this section can be found at the end of this article. If your safety is immediately threatened, you can call the police on 999. If you are unable to speak, press 55 when prompted to do so.
Gross government incompetence
I started writing this article before France closed its borders to us, followed by a whole host of other countries. As I watched one of the most pointless press conferences that Boris Johnson had hosted (this was one pointless press conference in quite a crowded field) I was struck, once again, with how gross government incompetence had got us to this stage.
Boris Johnson and his gang of bumbling idiots, otherwise known as the Cabinet, have devasted this country beyond all belief. COVID-19 was something that no government would want to wish for. But, Eat Out To Help Out? Sporadic opening and shutting of ‘non-essential retail’ and hospitality industries? Making promises that they can’t keep, and having to dip even deeper into the public purse to handle the fall out?
All of this is a result of governmental incompetence.
And whilst the government struggled to cope, so did the NHS. When we talk about the excess deaths of 2020, we should also remember those people who died because their cancer was not even identified. Because the god-like NHS had to be protected above all else. Its basic function was halted, and was replaced by GP phone appointments (if you could get one), deferred appointments (if they were ever rearranged), and empty A&E departments.
As you look at this picture, it’s rather bleak. And when you ask what we can do about it, an answer is not forthcoming. We are not due a general election until 2024. Governmental COVID regulations rather conveniently try to throw in blanket bans on protest (as if government ever gave us the right to protest in the first place). And the NHS must care for those who have COVID and also must care for those without – a question of maths, but maths with a human heart.
Of course, the end of the year also saw a glimmer of hope – a vaccine, speculated about since the start of the year, was approved for use in the UK.
But I’m hesitant to be hopeful about this. 2020 has been the year of conspiracy and, let’s be honest, we all know at least one person who says they won’t take the vaccine for some convoluted reason or other. Concerningly, almost half of care home staff have said they won’t take the vaccine. So can we really expect a vaccine to be the solution to our woes?
Regardless of how good a vaccine may be, scientists are yet to discover a vaccine for economic ruin. With unemployment set to rise even further in 2021, it is unclear just how long our economy can sustain the ‘contract-and-expand’ pattern that it has had on repeat this year.
For now, things are holding relatively stable. But that can’t happen forever, can it?
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can get help and support below:
Samaritans – 116 123
Refuge – 0800 2000 247
Respect – Men’s Advice Line – 0808 801 0327
If you are concerned about your safety, or the safety of somebody else, you can call the police on 999. If you are unable to speak, press 55 when prompted.