Every year since 2016, I have written an article to celebrate the winter solstice, an event that is familiar to people of all faiths, ethnicities and cultures. Last year I entitled it ‘Here Comes the Sun’ after my favourite Beatles song (a Harrison, of course!) and tried to offer some optimism in Christmas holiday lockdown. This year, I’ll admit that I’m finding it hard to be upbeat.
It’s been a very hard year for my family and many others in the UK, partly because of the world’s ongoing battle with SARS-COV-2, and partly because we have the worst government, at the worst time, which has fumbled every single response to the crisis.
Inadequacy and ineptitude from this government
Like most other people in the UK, I accepted the need for lockdown. In fact, as an over-60 with a first degree in science, I’d grasped the need to isolate three weeks before the government’s panicky lockdown in March 2020, which all who have any scientific knowledge have now agreed was ‘too little too late’. This created a pattern that has repeated ever since, highlighted in the article I wrote with Ruth Swailes at the beginning of this month.
Regular readers will be familiar with the education commentary articles I’ve written throughout the pandemic, drawing on my background as a retired teacher and education academic. This began with a suggestion in summer 2020 for more open-air education. There’s a wealth of information about open-air education techniques dating back to the late 19th century that the DFE could have drawn upon. In the event, they chose not to, preferring to give out exclusive contracts to improbable sources, another issue that has become the hallmark of their administration.
Suffer the children
Looking back over the pandemic, we can see that children and young people have most frequently been ‘sent over the top’, forming the first line for infection: still largely unvaccinated, they have been used as an ill-considered ‘herd immunity’ experiment, which any A-level biology student would realise was never going to work. Covid is a continually mutating coronaVirus, and unlike measles and mumps, one infection or vaccine cannot protect for life.
But still, children were sent into school to sit in stuffy halls and classrooms in both September 2020 and September 2021 with scant or no infection mitigations in place, which has given rise to international comment. Unsurprisingly, during both autumn terms covid ran rife, with significant numbers of infections amongst teachers and pupils. In early 2021, this translated into huge numbers of infections amongst the population as a whole:
This year, with the rise of the new Omicron variant, schools have limped towards the end of term with heavy sickness rates amongst both staff and pupils. At the moment, the figures from London, where Omicron is most prevalent, suggest that schoolchildren are the most heavily impacted demographic group.
I will admit to nursing personal anger about this issue. My eldest grandson’s school broke up for Christmas on Friday. On Sunday he was unwell and subsequently had a positive lateral flow test – thankfully, he is now recovering. But due to isolation rules, he won’t be seeing his cousins or grandparents until after Christmas.
Suffer the teachers and parents
The response of the education secretary in post at each successive Christmas has been bizarre. In December 2020, Gavin Williamson, from a Department For Education now found to have been the site of ‘reckless parties’ breaking the lockdown laws at that time, threatened head teachers with legal action for closing schools early.
This year Nadhim Zahawi has asked retired teachers – the age group most likely to suffer severe complications from Covid – to step in to replace their younger, ailing colleagues.
As a retired teacher, I was bemused to discover that my first thought was not ‘you are joking, I don’t want to die’ but ‘you are joking, I don’t want to deliver the Gove curriculum’. But whatever, I will pass on the invitation, as I suspect will most of my contemporaries.
Meanwhile, parents continue to be threatened with legal action for not sending their children into the DFE’s covid factories.
Mocking the population
Like many other people in the UK, I have lost close relatives this year. For me, this was my brother and mother who died within seven weeks of one another in December 2020 and February 2021, not from covid, but from cancer and Alzheimer’s respectively. Both died under stringent lockdown laws, which meant heavily restricted visiting. As I lived over 200 miles from both, the logistics meant that I was unable to see them in person during their final days and had to attend both funerals via webcam.
And as we now know, at this time the government were extensively breaking their own lockdown rules, and joking with each other about it. On tweeting about my own personal anger at this, I unwittingly unleashed a tsunami of pain and anger from other people in the same position. This led to an appearance on GMTV, where I tried to articulate this widespread revulsion at such behaviour.
What might be new in ‘22?
With all things considered, to mark this year’s winter solstice, I am going to put on my historian hat and look back at what collectively angry English populations have done to vent their feelings in the past. And interesting, Yorkshire frequently seems to be in the frontline of collective action.
There was a little known ‘Yorkshire Rebellion’ in 1489, in response to Henry VII’s attempts to raise taxes, which were “least welcome in Yorkshire”. This was principally due to the recent overthrow of a Yorkist monarch and the political manoeuvring that followed to prevent his niece taking the throne in her own right, through an arranged marriage to the Lancastrian usurper.
Nearly 40 years later, when their son Henry VIII instigated a new religion with himself as primate rather than the Pope, Yorkshire was front and centre in the so-called ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’. This movement attempted, amongst other things, to prevent the looting of the monasteries, which had for centuries served as charitable centres for health and social care across the nation; echoes of what is currently happening to our own NHS.
Finally, the battle that turned the English Civil War towards the parliamentarians’ cause was fought in Yorkshire: the Battle of Marston Moor.
In all cases, the root cause was a London-based monarch making one rule for himself and his peers and expecting the common people to obey his laws, whatever suffering it caused to them. And when we consider the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, there are many echoes in the behaviour of Boris Johnson and his Cabinet.
In summary, current discontent suggests that 2022 may turn out to be one of the most tumultuous years in British history, and perhaps mighty Yorkshire may yet again have a significant role to play.
Here comes the sun
During this holiday season, around the nation and in my own family there will be empty places at the table, in memory of those who have passed, and unfilled by those who are sick and isolating. In order to get through the experience I’ve been reflecting on one of the core lessons of both history and psychology: all things must pass. Which, coincidentally, is also an iconic George Harrison song.
And one thing is as true today as it was last year, has always been for our most distant ancestors and will be for our descendants: when the sun sets in the Northern Hemisphere on 21 December, we will start on our journey back into the light, whatever slings and arrows await us in the year to come.
So, for yet another year: here comes the sun.