I am now enjoying a short break between jobs. Fortunately (and I know there are many in a less fortunate position) it is a planned break. Originally intended to include the Paris marathon and a lengthy break with the family my plans have changed to pretty much just staying at home. Even the things I can still do are affected. I no longer run in a straight line as I curve around people mutually maximising our social distance. My plans to make up for lost time as a school governor have transformed from lesson walks and observations to video meetings and a focus on health and safety and safeguarding.

If it was a badly timed break it is also a badly timed job start. I am, after a brief dalliance in the private sector, returning to the NHS. I cannot pretend it’s a noble move: it was not COVID-19 motivated and by the time I’ve got to grips with my role, new organisation and relationships we may well be past the pandemic peak but the virus will still make starting a job in any organisation an unusual experience.

But the pandemic does highlight why I am going back to the NHS. I was a late and accidental joiner but felt a strong sense of purpose from my very first day. Part of the reason I’m returning is because, even though remained in healthcare, I never felt that same sense of purpose after I left. The NHS is a huge and complex organisation and my contribution was, and will be, small. But the NHS is the sum of those small contributions and each one is worthwhile.

As I stood at my front door joining in the last night I was reminded of the Nigel Lawson comment that the NHS was the nearest thing this country has to a national religion. He, of course, made that comment with the sneering contempt you would expect him to have for a public sector institution. It was clear last night, though, the public attitude would be very different.

The NHS, despite its imperfections (often introduced, I would argue, in the attempts to ‘improve’ by introducing the market) and years of underfunding, remains one of this country’s greatest assets. I’m very much looking forward to having some time with my family but incredibly proud and excited and just a little impatient to be back in the NHS.

An interesting take in The Guardian on the impact of a decade of reform on the response to Coronavirus. England’s ravaged public health system just can’t cope with the coronavirus:

The impoverishment of the NHS and the public health system in England is not the only depletion that has occurred in civil society that makes us ill-equipped to respond effectively to the greatest global health crisis in a century.

One of the first acts of the coalition government when it came to power in 2010 was to dismantle the regional structures that had provided a coherent mechanism for integrating and carrying out government policy within the English regions…the coalition also stripped the NHS of its regional management tier following the wide-ranging “reforms” of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

The result is the absence of any integrational, coordinating or management function at a regional level in England that could operate between Whitehall departments and the various bodies, often very local, that are charged with implementing government policy. The fact that some national bodies have adopted internal organisational boundaries that cover completely different geographical territories has also complicated the situation. This is notably and unfortunately true with respect to the key health bodies, NHS England and Public Health England.

I had been pondering what impact the reforms introduced since 2010 have had. Things like the move of public health from the NHS to local government can make it more responsive to local needs but also more at the mercy of local financing whims and at the cost of losing central control.

I am, by instinct, a localist but there is a lot to the argument that stripping out the middle tier and fragmenting other provision across the public, private and third sector has harmed our initial ability to mobilise against the pandemic.

I’m not unusual in becoming COVID-19 obsessed. It’s affecting my professional life (I work in the health sector, although not a part directly affected), I’ve been thinking about it a lot as a school governor (not just the potential impact but also about how the messages are shared with anxious children) and my attempt to be pretend I’m an academic just happened to hit a stage of studying global health as a live case study was unfolding on a daily basis.

What has been somewhat disconcerting is that we have to deal with a pandemic at exactly the time we have a government almost uniquely incapable of dealing with it. The example of Nadine Dorries, a health minister, continuing with her schedule despite being symptomatic, causes me some concern about the quality of political decision-making. And while on 5 March the Chief Medical Officer was telling MPs we were mainly in the delay phase Boris Johnson thought we were still in the contain phase four days later. Then a few days later we have other government advisors who appear to have misunderstood how herd immunity works and suggested a plan that appears to amount to everyone just getting COVID-19. Which brings us to being presented today with an over-70s quarantine plan that isn’t fully formed (details will come later) and I can’t help feeling the government is just trying to style this one out.

At a time we need calm, authoritative, advice—and sometimes decisive action—that helps slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable in our society we are stuck with a government for whom the best thing you can say is that at least they aren’t Trump.1


  1. Having pretty much left social media, and felt so much better for it, I still needed the teeniest vent for this. The first duty of a government is to protect its people and I (along with hundreds of scientists) just have no confidence in this government in this situation. I hope I’m wrong. 

A few hundred people listening to the first-timers’ briefing Clapham Common parkrun this morning. There a touch over 1,100 runners and walkers in total, the biggest one ever (until next week, which is likely to be even bigger).

I’d always, intellectually, understood the benefits of parkrun but it wasn’t until I got involved with Clapham Common that I realised how powerful it is, not just because of the physical activity, but also because of the sense of community and volunteering it entails. However you might want to be involved I can not recommend it highly enough.

Had to queue to vote today. First time I’ve ever seen that.

But for all the progressive optimism in my queue I worry that there were lots of (what I would think) the wrong type of queue in lots of the wrong places.

Many years ago when I was dabbling in student politics RON was a candidate at the bottom of every ballot paper. If you didn’t like the candidates a vote for RON, or re-open nominations, was there to express that opinion. And if RON won, it was back to square one for the election as if it hadn’t happened. I managed to get RONned once, losing my first bid to become college president (in a fit of stupidity I stood again, this time winning but having learned a valuable lesson about hubris).

The general election has left me thinking about the RON option a lot, wondering if it might be the winner in an election where it’s so hard to feel positively towards either of the two main parties. Despite my past (which I increasingly try to keep secret) as an elected Conservative I just cannot see why anyone would vote for a Conservative Party that seems to be led by people whose only vision is that governing is their birthright and have absolutely no capacity for empathy. But it’s equally hard to come up with positive reasons to vote for a Labour Party that clearly has a problem with anti-Semitism and, more generally, with tolerating  anyone who is not an adherent to the particular Corbyn brand of Labour. How lovely it must have been to live in a period of political consensus when people in politics were mature grown-ups who could tolerate difference.

And how lovely it must be to live in a constituency where you are not forced into voting for a least worst option with the moral ambiguity that entails.

I have spent a long time thinking about how to choose that least worse option. Can you net off Labour anti-Semitism by the fact that the Tories appear to be anti-everyone? Is Johnson worse for having no principles than Corbyn is for having strong principles with which you disagree? And how do you decide between a shadow Cabinet with some lamentably weak members and an actual Cabinet in which any form of intellectual ability seems to be a disqualification from office?

Of course, this is to make it more of a dilemma than it actually is: Brexit looms large over the election and, as such, the only option I have is to vote tactically. Personally, I could never vote for a Conservative Party that has moved so far to the extremes. It is delightful that Boris Johnson has been able to satisfy his personal ambition and so many Tory members get to indulge their fetishistic prejudice that it’s the foreigner that ills this country, I just don’t think making the country poorer and weaker and depriving the next generations of opportunity is a price worth paying for that.

There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic about tomorrow’s election but if you have any sense that Britain should be a proud, progression nation voting tactically will keep the hope alive.

I often tell people that (removing the obvious things like being a husband and father) being a school governor has been the most rewarding experience of my life. This is not hyperbole: I’ve been a governor at Shaftesbury Park for a long time now and feel a little prouder every day.

I’m especially proud of the school’s mission. The school has gone through a lot of changes in recent years and, as part of that, drew up a vision in consultation with staff, parents and pupils that represented what the school was. In a wordy way. It got everything in but looking back it’s clear that in doing so it left the essence of the school diluted in the statement.

Five years on it was time for a refresh. But this time the vision just appeared:

At Shaftesbury Park we develop children who think about their world, enlarge their world and change their world.

And it nails what the school does.

It uses the International Primary Curriculum to not to impart facts but to encourage children to think widely around themes and develop their own views. It uses the French bilingual stream not just as a language but as a cultural gateway. And it uses the Enterprise stream to teach the skills like planning, teamwork and leadership so they thrive in whatever world they find themselves in.

Technically the vision is a circular because the elements reinforce and compound. (An idea shamelessly stolen from Battersea Arts Centre.) And I like it so much I sprung for some stickers.

Thanks to Simon Wilson for the inspiration and Diginate for the vinyl. I’m hoping I’ll see them in the school stuck on laptops, diaries, notebooks and ID lanyards to act as a reminder that education is a process although I know that the school’s staff don’t really need a reminder.

The Goveian obsession may be exams, test results and pricey Bibles but developing pupils who have curiosity, confidence and capability is at the heart of what education really offers children and the country. Good academic results will flow from that and because they can be measured they will be measured. The real benefits will be less tangible but I know that every pupil going through that school will feel them for the rest of their lives.

RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor’s blog summarises research that shows a significant minority of people actually want chaos.

The authors [identify] those ‘in need of chaos’ who gain satisfaction from anything which may contribute to ‘tearing down the system’ … this research finds a much higher level of enthusiasm for destruction than might have been expected. They put forward three statements that propose this kind of radical action and find that 40% of people support two of them and 20% the third.

As the authors write, “A substantial minority of individuals are so discontent that they are willing to mobilize against the current political order to see if what emerges from the resulting chaos has something better in stock for them.”

In relation to hostile online material, the enthusiasts for chaos have no interest in whether it is true, nor even whether it supports their own ideological position. They will share hostile fake material both for and against their ‘side’, not simply for the devilment but because they see it as making collapse and chaos more likely.

It was getting close to a received wisdom that votes like those for Trump or Brexit were more votes against an establishment that had failed those voters. This seems an order of magnitude beyond that: as much as 40% of people (enough to win a general election in this climate) are probably happy for the current constitutional chaos. Maybe the Cummings/Johnson strategy is 4-dimensional chess after all.