Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 24.7.21

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’     


Interesting that cases are again rising everywhere except in Sweden. Wonder what it means.

Spain’s rise among the young is horrendous and we wait to see what the hospitalisation and death rate consequences are of our 5th wave. As of now, the daily rate of 17,716 is close to the all-time peak of 18,504 of 21 January. As we wait, curbs on nightclubs and partying are being restored. Inevitably, Spain is accused of being too quick to lift these, as it rushed to save the summer and attract foreign tourists. Not surprisingly, Germany has downgraded Spain to ‘High Incidence’, which is a major blow to the tourism industry, especially in the Balearics. See the link to María’s post below.

Cosas de España/Galiza 

A Times columnist today on recent developments here: Banning support for Franco is anti-democratic. Spain’s socialist government has a problem dealing with Franco’s legacy. It has decided to airbrush him from history by criminalising the “glorification” of his regime, effectively censoring public debate about Spain under his rule. This is an assault on free expression and fundamentally anti-democratic. Free and open societies should come to terms with their history rather than try to erase it. . . . This legislation criminalising unwelcome or unpalatable ideas ignores the fundamental importance in any democracy of the free flow of thought and liberty to speak one’s mind. Spain’s leaders are playing with fire in a country that is still a relatively young democracy. They should reverse course. 

María’s Not So Fast: Days 15-19 Our Reality 

The UK  

An ex-Tory MP: I have no idea how Freedom Day will end and nor do you, but I do know this: if it ends badly, with deaths soaring and an NHS again staring at disaster, that will finish Boris Johnson. . . . As a classicist, there’s bound to be the nagging understanding that nemesis waits in watchful attendance upon hubris. In defiance of all appearances, I’m sure Johnson lives in a state of constant anxiety that he has tempted fate too far, and everything is about to go horribly wrong. 

Well, I don’t much care about him but what happens will determine when I can make my long-planned trip to the UK to see my latest grandchild, now several months old.


What is it about the Frogs?: Riot police hit the streets as antivaxers gear up for yellow vest-style protests.

The Way of the World

Emojis showing a pregnant man and gender-neutral royalty are expected to be included among a fresh crop of symbols to be released in autumn.


Guess how I’ve learned that un chubasquero is a raincoat.

Finally  . . .

You surely will believe this . . . 

1. Yesterday on the Renfe site I tried to get times of trains from Santiago to Pontevedra next Tuesday, to be told there were none. 

2. Today I tried to get the times of trains next Saturday from Pontevedra to Madrid, to be told I hadn’t entered a valid station of origin. This is by no means the first time this has happened.

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here


Losing the plot 

It doesn’t much matter what Boris Johnson says on 19 July, many people have given up listening. Many vaccinated adults have already ditched masks, apps and social distancing, and never bothered with free lateral flow tests. 

Disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock’s hypocrisy and the waiving of rules for Uefa dignitaries attending Euro 2020 matches have also helped fuel the abandonment of all caution by many fans. Sanctions will probably be lifted on 19 July because many people will not take them seriously now. Hancock’s resignation makes no difference. He conned us all, and possibly for a long time. 

Hancock snared 

How British that the end of Hancock’s tenure as health secretary was not the UK’s high rates of Covid death and long Covid, nor the failure to protect care home residents and healthcare staff from Covid. Nor was it the expensive failings of Test and Trace, the secretive award of lucrative jobs and contracts using personal contacts, nor a failure to declare clear conflicts of interest. 

The appointment of Gina Coladangelo as a non-executive director of the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) – her job being to independently scrutinise its work at taxpayers’ expense- elicited no sanction, despite the fact she is a very old friend of Hancock’s and her brother is director of a healthcare firm with several NHS contracts. When Hancock and Coladangelo became a couple, they kept it quiet. It was only when the pair breached social distancing rules under a spy camera that Hancock’s game was up. Having been so sanctimonious about other rule breakers and repeatedly declared that “if one person breaks the rules, we will all suffer”, Hancock – and Johnson’s support for him – destroyed all remaining credibility. Those following the rules feel angry and betrayed; those breaking them feel vindicated; and those lucky enough not to have a spy camera in their office have roared with ridicule. 

How dysfunctional can a government department be when the health secretary is secretly filmed in his own office? And when he himself is secretly using a private but hackable gmail address and WhatsApp groups to conduct government business? It’s as if the Nolan principles on ethics in public life never happened. 

The Good Law Project is gamely trying to get to the bottom of Hancock’s Covid contracts, and he has already been in breach of the law once by failing to hand over details. Michael Gove also broke the law by awarding a £560,000 contract to associates of his and Dominic Cummings at Public First. Gaining access to private email and WhatsApp accounts to find the full extent of governmental wheeling and dealing will be an equally lengthy legal affair, and by the time the public inquiry kicks in, the accounts may have long vanished. 

Blame magnet 

Johnson may have been hoping to keep Hancock in place long enough for him to take all the blame at a public inquiry, but now he has gone he will be blamed for everything on the understanding that if he takes it on the chin and doesn’t squeal, he’ll be back in the fold before too long. Like Cummings, Hancock will have uncomfortable evidence showing Johnson was, say, slow to lock down. If the blame gets too unfair, he might just let it slip. If your boss has called you “totally fucking hopeless” and you no longer work for him, the least you can do is return the compliment. 

Just a little prick [British pun/joke]

When Hancock was asked how he would be remembered after the pandemic, he replied: “For the vaccine programme.” That seems a little less likely now; but any role he did play in the acceleration and roll out of vaccines deserves to be acknowledged. Cummings is less gracious in his appraisal of Hancock, declaring that responsibility for vaccination was taken away from the DHSC because it was “a smouldering ruin” for PPE procurement and would be likely to screw up vaccines too. Thanks to former Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley’s reforms, Hancock had relatively little control over NHS England or the NHS frontline. The leaders who deserve most credit for the vaccine programme arc Kate Bingham of the Vaccine Task force (for procurement) and NHS England’s Emily Lawson (for the planning and rollout). 

Power grab 

Hancock gave the impression the pandemic was a career opportunity rather than a public health emergency. Had he survived, he would shortly have grabbed more power than any health secretary in modem times under the proposed “Lansley-reversal” health bill.

But the baton now passes to Sajid Javid, the 17th health secretary MD has served under in my 34 years in the NIIS. Most have stuck it for two years. Johnson must seriously distrust Jeremy Hunt, the longest ever serving health secretary, who would have been an obvious choice to replace Hancock, having been fully up to speed on the pandemic as chair of the health select committee, and knowing where all the bodies are buried from his previous lengthy tenure. Perhaps Hunt was the one who left the spy camera in the office. 

Rarely does a former chancellor accept the poisoned chalice of health, but the new powers coming Javid’s way may have been hard to resist. With no experience or previous professed interest in health, and just a day to look at the data, Javid declared that all sanctions would be likely to end on 19 July and all changes would be irreversible. He is right to be mindful of the many harms of lockdown and the destruction of town centres, livelihoods, children’s mental health and education, but who knows what the winter will bring? 

Even if all Covid measures are rescinded, many people will continue to wear masks and socially distance. Some people may even retain the habit of washing their hands. Others will continue to break the rules as they have throughout. Traffic in many UK sexual health clinics has not reduced during the pandemic, because some people view sexual contact as an essential bodily function that trumps the need for social distancing. Doctors now call it the Hancock effect. 

Hospital pass 

Pandemic aside, Javid has accepted a mammoth hospital pass from Hancock. The anger of NHS staff exposed to unnecessary risk during the pandemic, record NHS staff shortages and patient waiting lists, and the crumbling NHS estate are all well documented. But Johnson made some glorious promises on health and social care to get elected in December 2019, and it is Javid who will now have to deliver them or explain why he can’t. 

They include: 40 new hospitals; 50,000 new nurses; 6,000 more GPs; 20,000 more primary care professionals such as physiotherapists and pharmacists; 7,500 extra nurse associates; and 50m more GP appointments. 

Johnson also promised £1.6bn for research over the next decade to find a cure for dementia; a new £500m fund to give patients quicker access to the most cutting-edge medicines for cancer and other diseases; 12 trailblazer schemes for adult mental health; and 1,000 extra staff in NHS community mental health services. This is part of a £975m increase in community mental health funding every year. All schools and colleges in England will be offered mental health training, and 73 mental health support teams and additional training for teachers “will ensure pupils will be able to gel the mental health support they need, when they need it”. 

Then there’s a promise to level up and reduce the UK’s endemic health inequalities, which Covid has made even worse. As for social care, Johnson declared on his election as Tory leader: 

“My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care and so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared. And we will give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.” No wonder Javid wants to focus on the pandemic. The challenge he faces is immense. 

What next? 

Vaccination of adults is continuing apace, including many walk-in centres, and this remains the best chance of keeping 

hospitalisations and deaths low, and is the most widely supported control measure. Other measures have far greater side effects. Currently, anyone pinged as a potential contact by the NHS app is required to isolate for 10 days even if they have been double jabbed, have no symptoms and test negative. Many employees, including health and care staff, are off work as a result, as coronavirus infections rose 72 % in a week. If they continue to rise, and this policy continues, 1m fully-vaccinated people with no symptoms could be in quarantine. But they will soon be able to visit Germany. 

Child abuse? 

Nearly 400,000 school children are already in isolation, most with no symptoms, because someone in their bubble has tested positive. The JCVI (joint committee on vaccination and immunisation) is still appraising the risks and benefits of vaccinating the under 18s. Some experts, such as Prof Calum Semple, a member of SAGE, believes there is “rock-solid data” to show that the risk of severe harm to children from Covid is “incredibly low”. Others believe we should remain very cautious about exposing children to a novel pathogen with unknown long-term consequences, and vaccination would be a far safer- but not risk-free – option. If and when it is offered, it should remain voluntary. 

We do know that children desperately need other children to play with for their physical, social and emotional development. We also know that for some children the haven and support of school – and a school dinner – is essential to their health and safety. 

Children should clearly stay away from school if they are sick, but if they are well and deemed to have been even a fleeting Covid contact, they currently have to sit at home and watch crowds of adults enjoying Wimbledon, the Euros and wild, drunken celebrations. Unsurprisingly, rates of suicide, self-harm and eating disorder in children have risen during the pandemic. And educational losses may never be regained. Sajid Javid should start by making the welfare of children his paramount concern. Our futures depend on it.