1. Yesterday all the past
On 5 October this year, the Italian philosopher of biopolitics, Giorgio Agamben, published his most powerful and poetic text yet on the coronavirus crisis. Titled Quando la casa brucia, this was Agamben’s sixteenth text about the crisis; yet unlike the others it was not immediately translated and circulated around the world. The widespread attempts to silence him by the enemies of reason have had their effect, and the academics, students, journalists and philosophers that once hung on his every word have now consigned Agamben to the ranks of the ‘COVID-deniers’ and other, equally foolish, dismissals. So I took it upon myself to translate his text, and with the help of Carlo Rimassa, a native Italian-speaker, produced a translation which we published on the ASH website as When the House Burns: Giorgio Agamben on the Coronavirus Crisis. I won’t try to summarise its many wisdoms and beauties here, but towards the end of the text Agamben, who uses the metaphor of a burning house for the destruction of the pre-COVID world by our opportunist governments, reflects on the duties of those of us confronted with the stubborn indifference of the people who still, after 9 months, refuse to see what is being done with their consent and collaboration.
‘Whoever realises that the house is burning can be tempted to look with disdain and contempt at his fellow men, who appear not to notice the flames. Yet is it not these men, who do not see and do not think, that will be the lemurs to whom you will have to give an account on the final day? Realising that the house is on fire does not raise you above others; on the contrary, it is with them that you will have to exchange a last look as the flames get closer. What can you say to justify your claims of conscience to these men who are so unaware that they seem almost innocent?’
I recently watched The Social Dilemma, a film about the psychological, social and political effects of social media, which showed how algorithms run by Artificial Intelligence feed us only what we have already heard and want to hear again. Indeed, the use of the word ‘feed’ to describe Facebook’s constantly updated stories, photos and links from both the individuals and groups we follow and the advertisers that follow us, is the perfect term for this insatiable appetite for a menu of more of the same. The result, the film argued, is that public debate on anything in countries such as the UK, where social media is the principle source of news and public opinion, whether it’s Brexit or a General Election or the coronavirus crisis, has been split into two unlistening camps that are completely incapable of communicating with each other, and which regard each other as deluded, stupid and completely wrong.
I must admit that, given the weight of evidence against the lies being told by the UK Government, media and technocrats about this manufactured crisis, it is difficult not to fall into this trap. But our enforced social distance and alienation from each other, our division into opposed camps, is the foundation on which the UK biosecurity state is being built. For me, therefore, perhaps the most valuable part of Agamben’s extraordinary text is his warning that, just because we realise our house has been set on fire by the arsonists in the seats of power, this does not elevate us above those who appear almost innocent in their unwavering ignorance of what is being done, by whom and to what end; that it is with them that we will have to exchange a last look as the consuming flames draw closer; to them that we will have to justify our claims to a social, political and moral conscience.
2. To-morrow, perhaps, the future
Back in June of this year, I published an article titled Lockdown: Collateral Damage in the War on COVID-19. An attempt to estimate the human, social, economic and political cost of the Government-imposed lockdown of the UK, I began with four anecdotes about individuals I know personally, and how their lives had been affected by the coronavirus-justified assault on their jobs, their education, their businesses, their households, their relationships, their mental state, their physical health. I want to end this report on the expansion of the UK biosecurity state through the winter of 2020-2021 by returning to these individuals, and to see what the past 6 months of restrictions has done to their lives. Their stories have both highs and lows, and give some insight into the impact on the country not of the coronavirus, as we are constantly being told, but of its exploitation by the Government and its financial partners.
When I last wrote about D. he’d just been fired by his employer, Holland & Barrett, the chain of health-food retailers, for exposing the lack of coronavirus health and safety measures in their warehouse in Derby. A skilled forklift driver in his early 30s, D. had been employed at Holland & Barrett through an agency, had no employment rights, and was looking at a future on Universal Credit in a collapsed job market with no savings. His last post on Facebook confessed his anxiety levels were ‘through the roof’. I’d met D. through his ska band, in which he plays lead guitar; and was pleased when the following month he announced he had applied for a degree in Popular Music and Psychology at the University of Derby. By his own admission, D. hadn’t been interested in learning at school, and laughed at himself for even applying to university. He hadn’t written an essay in years, and had to pass a numeracy and literacy test as part of his application. But to his immense surprise — although not to those of us who know him — D. was accepted as a student. He started in September, and since then his Facebook page has been full of reports on the latest bit of music theory he’s read, or footage of him playing the first piece of classical music he’s ever written for piano, interspersed with profuse apologies for being a nerd. Amid the wholescale destruction of life in the UK, it’s been a rare pleasure to watch. In August D. wrote:
‘When I got sacked from my job at Holland & Barret a couple of months ago, I was in a really bleak place, couldn’t see a way out and was frankly shitting myself about how I would survive. A few months later and I realise that getting sacked from that job was literally the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It created an opening in my life, which gave me chance to take stock of what I wanted to do and an opportunity to take a different path.’
From one perspective, D. could be seen as a successful example of the Government’s National Cyber Security Centre campaign to ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’ — although it remains to be seen how many jobs there will be for a musician amid the closed-down venues of the UK’s decimated music industry for the 3.4 million predicted to be unemployed in this country by the end of 2020, or for the 9 in 10 UK workers who will be forced to ‘reskill’ by 2030 as a result of the mass automation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and who are more likely to end up tied to a robotic arm packing coronavirus tests and vaccines in an Amazon warehouse. From another perspective, though, D.’s once-in-a-lifetime experience of becoming a mature student has been greatly impoverished by the new conditions of study, which apply to all students in the UK. D. had originally applied and been accepted onto the Foundation Joint Honours Programme, but two weeks before he started Derby University cancelled the course in psychology. That brought him down with a bump; but a week later the course leader looked at D.’s music portfolio and was so impressed he accepted D. directly onto the Bachelor of Arts Honours degree.
However, like every other university in the UK, Derby has moved its lectures online; and although D. has been asked to be Programme Representative for his year, he’s said more than once that he ‘probably picked the worst possible year to decide to go back to education’. The second time it was ‘definitely’. Unfortunately, online teaching won’t only be for this year, or even until Easter of next, but will become standard practice in every higher educational setting for every year to come. In October, one of D.’s fortnightly practical classes was cancelled because the room had been ‘compromised’. In mid-November he was told he wouldn’t be back on campus until the end of January. So life under lockdown has been up and down for D. I hope he’ll stick at his studies, even under the difficult, anti-social and deliberately alienating conditions in which he and millions of other students are being forced to study, and I believe he will.
* * *
The story of M. is less hopeful. Shortly after I wrote about them in June, M. and his wife shut up the restaurant they have been running for the past five years and returned to Italy. On a note left on the front door they wrote that they hoped to return some day. That day arrived sooner than I thought, when the restaurant reopened in September. We immediately booked a table, in solidarity as much as anything, and were looking forward to a brief respite from the rudeness with which we’d been greeted in many of the pubs we’d tried to drink in by staff demanding we wear a mask or hand over our contact details. The fact that, at that time, the requirement to collect customers’ contact details was only Government guidance, and did not have the force of law behind it, hadn’t stopped the hospitality industry enforcing it with all the zeal of a café-owner in Vichy France. We were disappointed, however, when, having been shown to our table, M. appeared with a clip-folder and asked us to write down our details. A long conversation ensued in which I explained the difference between guidance and legislation that brought censorious looks from every other table in the restaurant, and which ruined our evening before it had began. I don’t mind standing up to and correcting the collaborators with the biosecurity state, but I’d rather not be doing it at restaurant prices on my evening off. M. apologised to us afterwards, but we both knew what was coming.
A week later, on 17 September, the guidance was made law under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Collection of Contact Details etc and Related Requirements) Regulations 2020. The week after that the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place and on Public Transport) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 made wearing masks compulsory for anyone entering a restaurant or pub, with fixed penalty notices for non-compliance raised to a maximum of £6,400. Since the beginning of June, the overall mortality rate in London had been below the five-year average, as it continues to be today; but all M. knew is what he had been instructed to do by industry guidance. One evening, passing his empty restaurant, I tried to look in, but the glass door was papered over with Government regulations about wearing masks, restricting tables to six and contact tracing. Inside, like a barrier confronting the diner before he came near to a table, was a stand containing disinfectant and more signs instructing us to wash our hands, wear a mask and sign in. On the restaurant’s website page it reads:
‘Due to the COVID 19 rule update please note the following:
‘The NHS track and trace QR code will be available at the entrance of our restaurant.
‘Masks will need to be worn when walking to your table, toilets or to the exit door at the end of the meal.
‘A strict 10pm curfew will apply to all tables and reservations should be up to 6 people.
‘Our last available booking slot will be 8:30pm each day for a duration of 1.5 hrs, please consider an earlier booking for more than 2 guests.’
Why anyone should want to visit anywhere under such conditions, let alone pay for the privilege of doing so, and to do so in the context of an evening of ‘hospitality’, is beyond me.
It appears to be beyond most other would-be diners too. The last time I had any interaction with M. was when we were picking up takeaway pizzas. He met us at the front door and handed us our order without a smile or hello. We used to regard M., if not as a friend, at least as a friendly acquaintance. When we dined there in the past, he or his wife would always come to our table for a chat about their ongoing attempts to introduce this part of Inner London to Italian cuisine. That’s all gone now. Doubtless he blames us and people like us for not patronising the instrument of surveillance into which he has been forced to turn his formerly warm and welcoming restaurant. This is very much the purpose of the regulations the Government has imposed on small businesses like M.’s — not only to force them into bankruptcy, but also to lay the blame for doing so on the public the Government hasn’t hesitated themselves to blame for the manufactured rise in COVID-19 ‘cases’. What makes this transformation all the more painful is that M.’s wife, when we saw her shortly before their return to Italy, was furious because, like us, she said she knew this was all a lie. Knowing that, however, doesn’t mean they can avoid the Regulations that will soon enough ruin the restaurant they spent five years building up and many more working and saving to open.
Personally, I believe restaurants should discharge their legal obligations to display the terrorising notices about a killer virus and provide the sanitisers for those who, like Lady Macbeth, obsessively try to cleanse their hands of their viral crime; but it is not up to staff — and nor are they empowered under coronavirus Regulations — to enforce such measures on more rational diners. As I have said of the classrooms of the UK’s universities, if the Government needs a policeman in every restaurant to force customers to obey its unlawfully made Regulations, then it is ruling by force and not by consent. I imagine that, faced with the financial ruin of their life’s work, M. and his wife think that if they follow every Government guidance like it is holy writ, and strive to outdo their competitors in enforcing the programmes of the UK biosecurity state, the customers they presume are too terrified to leave home will return to their restaurant. But it doesn’t appear to be that way. I know I’ll never visit M.’s restaurant again. The last time I passed by, he and his wife were sitting in their empty restaurant at separate tables, their laptops open before them, their faces blank as they stared into the virtual reality the Fourth Industrial Revolution is substituting for the living reality from which our Government has banned us.
This scene is being repeated across the UK, with the Office for National Statistics last month estimating that 64 per cent of businesses across all industries were at risk of insolvency, with the hospitality industry one of the hardest hit. And it isn’t just businesses that are being destroyed, but lives too. In July, the ONS estimated that the impact of the lockdown-induced recession in 5 years’ time would be 15,000 excess deaths from all causes among young people (aged 15-24) who have entered the labour market a few years before, during, and after the recession, with an additional 17,000 excess deaths per year for as long as GDP remains at a reduced level. The opposition popularised by the Government and media between saving the economy and saving lives is a completely false one. As these figures show, the deliberate destruction of millions of businesses like M.’s, and the many millions more jobs that will be lost with them, will result in far more deaths than have been attributed to COVID-19.
* * *
My third story has a happier ending, so far. When I last wrote about R. he was on a rapid descent into what we suspected was dementia. A retired barrister now in his mid-70s, his growing difficulty with finding the right word and recalling what he did the day before increased at a worrying rate under lockdown. R. lives in a middle-class housing community in which the single bench on the square of manicured lawn was covered with ‘safety’ tape, and neighbours rushed to fit their keys into the locks in their haste to escape his attempts at conversation. Besides our weekly visit, R. saw only one or two other people every seven days. All technological means of communication — his mobile, his laptop, his phone, his digital clock, the tangled forest of social media — had turned into traps, sending him out on visits to his doctor in the middle of the night, dialling random numbers, losing track of his medication. With the restrictions in place, it was impossible to hire professional help. Then, in July, the long-delayed diagnosis he had been waiting for since before the lockdown finally came. R. has Alzheimer’s disease. It didn’t look good. Deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s resulting from the withdrawal and reduction in social care under coronavirus-justified restrictions are among the highest in the UK. In October, the Office for National Statistics revealed that, between 14 March and 11 September this year, there have been 2,095 excess deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in private homes in England. This is a rise of over 79 per cent compared with the average registered for the same period over the past five years.
By August we’d had enough. We weren’t going to sit by and watch R. be killed by the medically baseless regulations enforced upon him by the gang of criminals in the UK Government already responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of elderly and sick people denied medical care this year. We arranged to take R. to stay with an old friend in the South of France. But just as we did, the Prime Minister announced two weeks of quarantine would be imposed on anyone travelling to the UK from certain countries in Europe, including France. At the time, France had an even lower number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 than the UK. In the week R. was away, there were 1,443 fewer deaths in England and Wales than the five-year average, so Boris Johnson’s decision was purely to satisfy the fears of a terrorised public. But fearing President Macron would respond tit-for-tat like two bullies in a playground, we moved R.’s departure forward so that he would be free under French law to walk around the village in which he would be staying without incurring the wrath of the locals, visit the sites in the surrounding countryside, and socialise with friends and strangers alike. Getting him there, however, wasn’t easy. As someone with dementia, someone else had to travel with R., and when they arrived at the boarding gate at Gatwick both wearing the required face coverings, the staff for EasyJet — which were advertising designer cloth masks on their boarding passes — abruptly announced they would only be admitted onto the flight if they wore medical masks. But the visit itself was a success. When the time came to return to London, R. declared it was the best holiday he’s ever had; and given the circumstances — under which he thought he’d never be able to travel again — it probably was.
More importantly, it worked. The doctors who diagnosed R. with Alzheimer’s disease had said that his decline would be more or less steep, depending on numerous factors, but that his mental state would never improve. In fact, since he returned from France in early September, R.’s state of mind had improved enormously, and continues to do so. This wouldn’t be the first time in this year of medical hubris that doctors have been wrong about the effects of lockdown on the health of the nation. Like us, R. ignores social distancing and refuses to wear a mask when he visits his supermarket. He can now log on to his computer, use e-mail, search the internet, take and download photographs, and do his own shopping. But he also walks in the park on his own, and tries, at least, to talk to strangers. When I visited R. just before his trip to France, it was like being in a play by Harold Pinter, with lots of pauses and repetitions. R., who is wryly amused by his own condition, could recall the smallest details of his grandfather’s military service, but what he himself did the day before was a page of words blanked out by an increasingly strict censor. In comparison, when I visited him last week, although he still had the occasional trouble locating a word — nothing more than one would expect of someone his age — R. showed no signs of having dementia. The contrast between his dangerous decline under lockdown and his revived mental state since ignoring it couldn’t have been greater. Neither he nor we have any intention of obeying the dangerous and harmful restrictions of the second lockdown that risks plummeting him, once again, into such a dangerous state of health.
Too many have died already as a result of the Government’s criminal reprioritising of the National Health Service on 17 March. In July, the Office for National Statistics estimated there would be 16,000 excess deaths not attributed to COVID-19 this year from changes to emergency care; 26,000 excess deaths from changes to adult social care; 1,400 excess deaths from changes to primary and community care; 12,500 excess deaths over the next 5 years from changes to elective care; and 18,000 excess deaths from increased heart disease and mental health problems over the next 2-5 years. And although, under the statutory changes to the registration of deaths in this country, anyone who tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 within 28 days of dying is categorised as a ‘COVID death’, the deaths not only from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but also from lung and bowel cancer, heart, lung and brain diseases, hypertension and diabetes occurring in private homes were well above the 5-year average back in July due to the reduction and withdrawal of medical care and treatment. An indication of how many of these deaths are now being misattributed to COVID-19 is that, as of 13 November, the Office for National Statistics reports that the number of deaths not attributed to COVID-19 continues to drop below the five-year average for the third consecutive week as so-called ‘COVID-19 deaths’ continue to rise.
* * *
Finally, I come to P., which is the saddest of my stories under lockdown, and whose end is not yet clear. When I last reported on P. he was doing relatively well. He’d gone into hospital for a standard check-up before a heart bypass operation, and had been found to have bowel cancer. It was so advanced he had the operation within 24 hours. P. was lucky, I said, as this happened a week or so before the lockdown. A week or so later, and he might very well have been among the thousands who have died from changes to emergency care. Bowel Cancer UK recently reported that a delay of three months across all 94,912 patients who were due to have surgery to remove their cancer over the course of this year would lead to an additional 4,755 deaths; and that, taking into account the length of time that patients are expected to live after their surgery, the delay would amount to 92,214 years of life lost. P, who is 76 years old, had most likely survived this fate by a matter of days.
But death from changes to medical care is not the only way lockdown restrictions are threatening the lives and health of the elderly. When I next saw P., in our local pub, he had just come out of months of self-isolation, and the news was good. It looked like they’d caught the cancer, and apart from all his hair falling out he was responding well to the chemotherapy. Shortly afterwards, towards the end of September, the Government introduced Regulations making pub staff responsible for compelling patrons to wear a mask as soon as they entered the pub, even if it was to go straight to a table. I was in the same pub, on my way out for a fag — unmasked — when I saw P. again. He was sitting on his own on a stool at the bar, which by then was illegal. Fortunately, the staff still had sufficient humanity in them not to call the police and have him fined with a £200 fixed penalty notice, as Government guidance instructs them to do.
P. had bad news. His partner of 10 years had just told him she wanted him out of the housing association property she rented, and had given him notice to quit the following week. As partners, he only had an informal agreement with her, and therefore qualified under law as a lodger. So although the Government had finally implemented a ban on no-cause evictions for tenants, she could kick P. out with as much notice as she chose. She never gave him any rational reason why she wanted him out of her house, but it’s not hard to guess that the pressure of running her takeaway restaurant under the threat of lockdown, a reduced clientele, the looming possibility of bankruptcy, the shielding of P. as a vulnerable person in their home for the past 7 months, not to mention the increased mental pressure of living under the restricted freedoms of the UK biosecurity state, had all taken their toll on their formerly stable relationship. It was clear to see the impact this news had had on P.’s mental state at a time when he was already in a vulnerable physical state.
Then things went from bad to worse. I had offered to help P. find new accommodation. A week earlier he’d contacted Lambeth Council’s Housing Office, but had been unable to arrange a meeting. Although London was not then under a lockdown, never once has P. been able to have a face-to-face meeting with any of the council officers to whom he has been passed like an unwanted parcel that no-one ever opens, on a merry-go-round of unaccountability, indifference and professional incompetence. Every complaint by me to our Ward Councillor, Jon Davies, has been met with variations on the excuse that, due to the coronavirus, council officers working from home are ‘doing their best in very difficult circumstances’. In one e-mail (copied to his local MP) he even wrote that P. should try to ‘understand the pressures council officers are working under’. I won’t go into the tedious and all-too-familiar details of how P. was passed from his Housing Officer, Joseph Osagie, to the Homeless Co-ordination Officer, Jack Barden, to a Trainee Housing Adviser, Latoya Richardson, to his Member of Parliament, Florence Eshalomi, to her Senior Case Worker, Sham Tsegai, and finally to Lambeth Council’s Quality and Review Officer, Rodericka Taylor, which is as far as we got. By then, a month after he first made his application to the council for temporary housing, P. had been housed in a privately-run hostel in Stockwell. He had, in fact, found two studio rentals in the local area, but both landlords had refused to take someone claiming Housing Benefit — which P. would have to, since his entire month’s pension only covers about two-and-a-half weeks’ rent — presumably because they are not declaring the rent as income.
I went around to see P. in his new accommodation. In the course of my work with Architects for Social Housing I’ve visited and spoken to many residents in various hostels across London, so I wasn’t unduly surprised at what I saw. But P. was. The hostel is a converted council estate pub. There is a single light to illuminate the 50 yards from the street over broken and uneven surfaces to the hostel entrance at night, and it doesn’t work. There is the smell of gas coming from the basement, which is reached down steps covered with rubbish. The outdoor drains are broken and stink. Another door on the ground floor is boarded up with flimsy ply-wood that anyone wanting to could break through. Overgrown bushes grow across the cracked concrete outside the entrance. The interior is worse than a prison. The reused carpets in the hallways stop well short of the walls in crudely-cut edges. Unsurprisingly, the whole place smells of damp. P.’s room is the size of a prison cell. No bedding is supplied, and on his first night he had to borrow a duvet and pillow from a fellow inmate. There was no hot water, nothing to cook with, no crockery or cutlery, and the heating wasn’t working until P. himself fixed it. He’s refused to use the shower as he’s worried about the unsanitary conditions of a plastic shower curtain for someone in his state of health during an ‘epidemic’. The ventilation in the shower-room is clogged with dirt. The fittings under the kitchen sink are held together with tape, and the only light in the room is a single uncovered bulb. Apart from the fact the handle in the door to his room has been put on upside down over a crudely plugged hole, P. is concerned that an easily-pushed latch is the only thing between him and intruders at night. This makes him feel very unsafe, which is not what a man waiting for a heart bypass operation should be feeling.
P. is a proud man. A trained electrician and plumber who, before his recent health problems, still kept his hand in with occasional unpaid building jobs, he values his status as a reliable and competent tradesman. He doesn’t understand how, after a lifetime’s work, he has come to this. Nor can he comprehend the lack of professionalism, idleness and incompetence of Lambeth’s council officers. I assured P. that the failure that had brought him to this point was not his but that of the UK state. But I also had to explain to him that, strange as it may seem to those who have never had to call on the support of the welfare state, the purpose of UK housing policy for people that have been made homeless is not to help them to find accommodation but to put them on the street. What he has also found is that, in the meantime, being homeless doesn’t mean the private sector can’t and won’t make money out of him.
P. hasn’t moved any of his belongings into the hostel, as he’s worried about putting down any roots in a place from which he’s desperate to escape. And he’s right. Although by law, families with children are not meant to live in such ‘temporary’ accommodation for more than 6 weeks, I know single mothers who are still living in a single room with three children 3 years and more after they were moved into similar hostels in Hackney, Lambeth, Newham and Welwyn Garden City. For this single room in the slum in Stockwell, which I challenge any regulatory body to certify as either healthy or safe, P. is being charged £171.34/week plus a ‘service’ charge of £23.35/week — although from what I saw nothing is being serviced. That’s at least £194.69/week for each of the 9 flats in the hostel — some of which might have a larger capacity — or over £91,000 per year of Housing Benefit going directly into the pockets of the Midos Group, the London-based property investment and management company that runs the place, and whose glossy website belies their interest in a slum like this.
I use the word ‘slum’ to describe this hostel without exaggeration, as slums exist only because they make greater profits for landlords than well-built and maintained accommodation, and the failure to build council housing in the capital is a cash-cow for predatory developers and slum landlords like the Midos Group. In the absence of publicly-owned housing for social rent, hastily converted, privately-run hostels like the one in Stockwell are the favoured dumping ground for local authorities for the simple reason that the Housing Benefit that pays the private rents — and which are double social rent levels — comes out of Central Government funding rather than council budgets.
Under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, local authorities have a duty to secure accommodation for unintentionally homeless households in priority need. However, the Localism Act 2011 amended legislation to enable local authorities to discharge their duty towards homeless households in such need by offering them privately rented housing, irrespective of whether the household agrees with this. If they refuse, they are deemed to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, and the council is judged to have discharged its duty towards them. Due to the shortage of accommodation even on the private rental market with rents that are covered by Housing Benefit, most homeless households are placed in temporary accommodation while they wait for such accommodation to become available. But there is nothing temporary about such accommodation.
In June of this year, there were 98,300 households, including 127,240 children, in temporary accommodation in England, a rise of 14 per cent from June 2019. That’s about a quarter of a million people — more than the population of the London Borough of Islington, equal to the City of Derby — living in Bed and Breakfast hotels, nightly-paid, privately-managed accommodation, temporary local authority or housing association properties, private sector accommodation leased by local authorities, emergency centres, refuges or hostels. This increase was primarily driven by single adult households like P., with the number of single adults in temporary accommodation an enormous 51 per cent higher than in June 2019. This is partly a result of the Government’s ridiculously underfunded ‘Everyone In’ scheme, which instructed local authorities in England to accommodate all rough sleepers by 29 March. But it’s also a consequence of the breakdown in household relationships and loss of livelihoods caused by the lockdown restrictions inflicted on the population by the Government. 64 per cent of the total, 62,670 households, were placed in temporary accommodation by London local authorities. 59,250 of them, and over 60 per cent of the total, are in properties leased from the private sector. In 2019/20, English councils paid £1.19 billion on temporary accommodation like the slum in Stockwell. 87 per cent of that went to private landlords, letting agents or companies like the Midos Group, which is a 66 per cent increase on the amount paid to private providers in 2014/15. Homelessness is big business in the UK, and like most lucrative property investments, the profits made by private investors are coming out of the coffers of the state.
By now it was plain that Lambeth council, having discharged P. into the care of the Midos Property Investment and Management Group, had washed their hands of him. The only communication he received back from the council were several letters threatening him with eviction from the hostel if he didn’t complete his application for Housing Benefit. When it comes to making money for their private partners, the efficiency of Lambeth council suddenly improves. There is no internet connection or computer facilities in the hostel, despite the fact that everything a resident needs just to stay there, let alone escape, requires them to fill in online forms. Other than my own, the only help P. has received has been from a charity, which is helping him make his Housing Benefit claim. When P. found another studio on the private rental market, his Housing Officer, who has to authorise the application, took 4 days to respond to P.’s phone call, by which time it had been taken by someone else. This was the second time his Housing Officer had gone missing, the first time in the week P. made his application for temporary accommodation. Both times he had called in ‘sick’, which apparently precluded him from answering a phone for the entire week. I have requested that P. be appointed another, more competent Housing Officer, but have received no response. P. has lived in the area for over 10 years, and understandably wants to stay near his support networks and medical care. Yet the only thing Lambeth council has done to ‘help’ him is to offer him private rental accommodation in Croydon and Ealing, this being consistent with the council’s policy of moving homeless people out of the borough. Indeed, over the past decade there has been a 391 per cent increase in the number of households placed in temporary accommodation outside of their local authority.
Lambeth Council has stopped responding either to my e-mails or to P.’s phone calls, so last week I contacted the South London Press and told them P.’s story. Unlike the numerous council officers, councillors and our local MP, whose only response has been to blame the lack of council housing on ‘the Tories’, the journalist whose editor gave him the story was shocked and appalled at the way P. was being treated. When I sent him the photographs I had taken of the hostel he described it as a ‘dystopian nightmare’. When the paper contacted Lambeth Council for a comment they got no response, which we both agreed was representative of how they respond to their duty of care to constituents. But in fact, Lambeth Council has pursued an aggressive policy of selling and demolishing council housing in the borough and replacing it with properties for market sale. At the end of March this year, Lambeth had 2,567 households and over 4,000 children in temporary accommodation. Yet the Mayor of London’s London Plan: Annual Monitoring Report 2019 shows that, as of 31 March, 2018, Lambeth Council has awarded planning permission to build 6,454 properties for market sale or rent, 730 intermediate properties (which means for shared ownership and rent-to-buy), 572 for so-called affordable rent (which can be anything up to 60 per cent higher than social rent), and just 12 homes for social rent. Like the implementation of the UK biosecurity state under the cloak of the coronavirus crisis, the privatisation of housing provision under the cloak of the housing crisis is a cross-party collaboration between all political parties.
When I saw P. again he’d developed a new cough. A few days later he told me that the bed in his room is so uncomfortable he was now sleeping on the floor. A few days after that he slept in a friend’s car. It was now November. Then, last week, P. called to say that he’d gone into St. Thomas’ hospital with chest pains. An examination showed he had fluid on his lungs, and the doctors kept him in overnight for observation. They discharged him with four follow-up hospital appointments booked for January. In his discharge summary letter it lists, among the factors increasing a patient’s risk of hospital-acquired blood clots, that they ‘have recently being diagnosed with cancer’ and ‘have had an operation’. P. has both these increased risks. As is standard practice, the hospital tested P. for SARS-CoV-2, but the result came back negative. Grim as it is to contemplate, it’s important to realise that if the test had come back positive and P. had died in hospital of a pulmonary embolism, he would have been registered as a ‘COVID-19 death’.
We’re both hoping that, if the South London Press isn’t intimidated by Lambeth council and actually publishes the article — which at the time of writing isn’t looking likely — the adverse publicity it brings will force the council to rehouse P. in one of the many council flats in the borough that are standing empty, either preliminary to their sale to private investors or ahead of their demolition and redevelopment as market-sale properties. In April 2018, the last time for which there are accurate figures, Lambeth had 274 local authority-owned homes standing empty. 171 of them had been vacant for over 6 months, and yet only 28 were available for letting. This, and for no other reason, is why P. is sleeping on the floor of a privately-run slum in Stockwell. The place, P. has told me many times, is ‘killing him’, and I believe him. This Monday the pains in his chest returned, and P. checked himself back into St. Thomas’ hospital. Three days later he was still there. His chest pains are so bad he’s on powerful painkillers. Because of the coronavirus-justified restrictions I can’t visit him, but on the phone he was short of breath and could barely speak.
Under Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, local authorities are empowered to relax requirements to hold local authority, committee or joint committee meeting, to change the times or places or frequency with which such meetings are held, the manner in which persons may attend, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate in them, the extent of public admission and access to them, and the places and manner in which documents relating to meetings are to be open to inspection or otherwise available to the public. The Act claims this is in order to lessen the anticipated increase in workload for local authorities as a result of the coronavirus crisis. In practice, as Lambeth council’s treatment of P. demonstrates, what it’s done is allowed local authorities to dispense with what little transparency and accountability they had, and to renege on their other duties to their constituents.
This month Croydon council, on which Lambeth has tried unsuccessfully to offload responsibility for housing P., declared insolvency, and promptly announced it would be making ‘drastic’ cuts to jobs and services. I have no doubt that its services, whether in housing, health, welfare benefits advice, waste management, libraries, leisure centres, children’s facilities or law enforcement, will be outsourced to private companies on the same model as the provision of temporary accommodation for the homeless. In this, as in so many other aspects, the coronavirus crisis is being used as a justification to implement the increased privatisation of the UK state. As P.’s example demonstrates, far from helping councils to protect their constituents, coronavirus-justified Regulations enforcing social distancing and other anti-social measures have allowed public bodies to abandon their constituents to exploitation by market forces. This is the ultimate goal of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to which the increased automation of production and services is merely the means. And as the difference in circumstances between the retired barrister and the retired electrician and plumber show, it’s the working class, as always, that will suffer the brunt of this programme of state privatisation. A 76-year-old man recovering from an operation for cancer and 6 months of chemotherapy while waiting for a heart-bypass operation being left by a public authority to sleep on the floor of a privately-owned slum while making a profit for a property developer is a microcosm of all our fates under the corporate state to come.
3. But to-day the struggle
There is one last lockdown story I want to tell, about someone I don’t know, but whose story has had a big effect on me. On the evening of 28 October, several hours after listening to Jonathan Sumption’s lecture on ‘Government by Decree: COVID-19 and the Constitution’, which I subsequently wrote about in Bonfire of the Freedoms, I received an e-mail from someone I will call T. We had first made contact when T. sent ASH a donation for the pdf of my collected articles on the coronavirus crisis, COVID-19: Implementing the UK Biosecurity State, which we had published in September. And a month later he sent me this extraordinary letter, which he has given me permission to publish in this article:
‘Our daughter Esmee was born with very severe disabilities, leaving her with extreme “hypotonia” (floppiness basically) and unable to make any voluntary movements and cognitively blind and deaf. She was unable to communicate with us, not even able to smile or cry. I say “was” because she died last October (aged 14) from a sudden upper intestinal bleed, possibly from erosion of her stomach lining around the site of the “peg” through which she was fed. So we’ve had a strange old year since then. We had hoped to have our first proper holiday in fifteen years this summer (in a tent), but with the current madness in society we couldn’t really face it.
‘Anyway, here’s my point. Esmee’s condition was such that she only ever sat (in a special supportive chair) or lay down and this inactivity meant she was considered very vulnerable to infection. I got to thinking recently; what if Esmee was still with us and the authorities had approached us at the start of this COVID insanity and told us they would ensure Esmee was protected, but in order to do this they would have to put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, destroy thousands of local businesses, suspend normal medical care and health practices, suspend school for millions of children, isolate elderly people from their families, outlaw religious gatherings, sporting events, live performances, etc. This would have sounded like complete madness and we wouldn’t have accepted a single person having to suffer isolation, unemployment or the destruction of their life’s work in order to “protect” our daughter, because such measures would have been totally unnecessary. And yet here we are, being told it’s the only way to protect vulnerable people. We always saw it as our responsibility to take care of Esmee, or, when she was in respite care or hospital, it was the responsibility of her carers. None of this would have required anyone else to suffer in the way these crazy measures do.
‘Anyway, there we are. This is my view, as someone who had fifteen years of caring for a “vulnerable” family member. Perhaps we’re just an odd family? We used to take Esmee everywhere we could in her off-road push-chair — up mountains, through woods, across rivers, anywhere she could feel the wind (and usually rain) on her face. I’m sure some folks would think us irresponsible, but so be it. It was as close to a normal life for her that we could manage.’
Given our collective willingness in this country to stand by and see our loved ones taken from our side, refused visitors for months on end, denied medical care, diagnoses and life-saving operations, shunted off to slum hostels or left to die alone in care homes and hospitals, I would say that T.’s family is, indeed, ‘odd’, and that we could do with many more families being just as odd. But the image of Esmee feeling the rain on her face at the top of a mountain or by a woodland stream is one I will keep in front of my eyes as we face the dark days to come this winter. For me, Esmee’s brief life in the love of her family is a reminder that we must fight for all our freedoms, and above all for the freedom to give our children as free a life as possible away from the socially-distanced schoolyards and segregated classrooms, the masks stifling their young lungs and erasing their emerging identities, the daily curriculum of terror, the bullying of teachers enforcing Government regulations, the playgrounds they’re locked out of and the university halls they’re locked in, their hopes crushed, their prospects diminished, their futures mortgaged to Artificial Intelligence, used as guinea pigs for tests and vaccines for a virus to which they are immune, indoctrinated into the lie that their friends, their family, that they themselves are a threat to the biosecurity of the UK.
We were, my partner and I, contemplating leaving this burning ruin of a country and trying to find a life elsewhere, in Gothenburg, Dresden, Athens, Gondar — anywhere away from the prison that is being built around, between and inside all of us here in the UK. But that evening the lecture by Jonathan Sumption and this letter from T. convinced us that it is our duty to stay and fight for this country and for the people in it — not only those who, because of their age or infirmity or circumstances, are unable to defend themselves against the violent enforcement of the regulations, programmes and technologies of the UK biosecurity state, but even those whose actions are helping to build this prison, even as the flames from the house in which we once lived rise and envelop us. I hope you will join us.
Architects for Social Housing
On 11 December, the South London Press finally published an article about P. It appears on p. 14, and the reporter, Tom Hussey, told me the editor has removed everything he’d written about the hospital in which P. has been kept for 2 weeks now, so poor is his health. The article also contains several lies by Lambeth council, whose spokesman told the paper they were ‘working hard’ to help P., when in fact they have washed their hands of him; that they had offered him a ‘range of properties within the borough’, when in fact all the offers have been properties in Ealing and Croydon; and that they ‘offered support with his Housing Benefit’, when in fact the only support P. has had in making his claim is from Ms. Ayshen Cagliyan, an Advice Worker from the charity Centre 70 Advice and Counselling.
Addendum: How the Poor Die
Text messages from Peter Tapsell to me in the last two months of his life.
25 October. Peter asked me to meet him in our local pub on its last night before it shut down. He said he wanted to buy me a pint.
27 October. Peter asked me to send a character reference to Dexters Estate Agents, with whom he had found a property on the private rental market.
30 October. Peter told me Dexters would send me the contract for him to sign. However, despite this initially going through and being accepted, Dexters later withdrew their offer.
4 November. Peter, who had been moved into the hostel in Stockwell that day, told me the place was ‘dangerous to his health’ and was ‘destroying him’. Its distance from Stockwell Tube station meant he had walked 15 kilometres that day looking for properties to rent, and he said it had ‘nearly killed him’.
10 November. Peter asked me to contact Lambeth Council, as his housing officer, Joseph Osagie, was not answering his phone again, and Peter had found another place to rent.
12 November. During a visit to hospital for a check-up, Peter told me his housing officer had finally returned his calls, but that it was too late, and the place he had hoped to move into had been rented to someone else.
17 November. Peter sent me the address of the hostel in Stockwell Lambeth had placed him in, and asked me to set up an e-mail address for him so that he could make a claim for Housing Benefit to pay the £194.69/week rent. The following day I visited Peter.
24 November. Peter told me he was back in St. Thomas’ hospital hospital with chest pains. ‘Feel bloody awful. It’s that bloody place they have sent me to.’
25 November. Peter told me he had spoken about his housing situation to a senior nurse, who told him they would ‘send a report of his situation to their housing office, but they couldn’t say whether it would be followed up.’ Later the same day, Peter told me he still had ‘considerable muscle ache. However, I’m told the fluid in my lungs is getting better.’ That evening he was discharged from hospital.
26 November. Peter sent me the e-mail address and phone number of the charity helping him with his claim for Housing Benefit.
28 November. Peter told me that the property he was trying to rent in Cleaver Street had gone as a result of his housing officer having failed to contact them. He also told me he had another property to view in Aveline Street.
30 November. Peter told me he had readmitted himself to hospital with chest pains. He asked me whether I’d heard from the journalist reporting on his story for the South London Press. He said he felt the story had to be published now, ‘otherwise it will all go cold.’
1 December. Peter told me that Ayshen Cagliyan, who had been helping him with his claim for Housing Benefit, had finished the forms and sent them to Lambeth council. ‘For once, she seemed a very straight-forward person, gained the information and did the job. How unusual. But then, she’s not working for Lambeth!’
4 December. Peter told me he was still in hospital. ‘More tests today. Totally fed up and bored.’
7 December. Peter told me he’d had a call from Lambeth Housing for a flat in SW4 just as more blood was being taken from him. ‘I’ve only got two arms. I’m not sure where they are going next, but they will find it.’ He told Lambeth Housing he was in hospital for tests, and asked them to send the address. ‘I’ll ring in the morning to say I’ve been kept in.’
I spoke to Peter several more times while he was in St. Thomas’ Hospital, but he was very weak and I often had trouble understanding what he was saying. Several times he tried to ask me to do something specific, but I couldn’t understand what it was. Near the end, he told me he had found another place he hoped to rent, but was worried that he would lose it, as he had all the others, because Lambeth Council would be too slow contacting the estate agents. On 14 December, he asked me to pick his few things up from the hostel, which I did. Throughout this time, I was not allowed to visit Peter in hospital because of lockdown regulations. The last time I spoke to him, Peter told me his cancer had returned. He sounded scared.
18 December. These are Peter’s last text messages to me:
Can you talk to my brother in Law re re 7 0 what caused
M mo B either i
On 26 December, I received a text telling me Peter had died that morning. It was little more than 5 weeks since I’d seen him in the Stockwell hostel. During my visit on 18 November, he took a phone-call in which he discussed doing some building work on a friend’s home. Although he’d developed a new cough since moving into the hostel, he was physically strong. When I saw Peter after his chemotherapy treatment, I was amazed at how strong he looked, and told him so. I told him again when we met in a pub, and I read through the medical papers from St. Thomas’ hospital we submitted as part of his application to Lambeth Council for rehousing.
To be classified as a ‘COVID-19 death’ it isn’t necessary to die of the disease, but only for it to be listed on the death certificate as a contributing cause. Peter died of bowel cancer; but there is no doubt in my mind that his accommodation in the slum in which Lambeth Council dumped him was a contributing cause of his death. When Peter first told me about his diagnosis for bowel cancer back in February of this year, before the lockdown measures that have killed tens of thousands of people suffering from cancer, heart disease, dementia, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses for which they have been denied treatment and care, he confidently told me that he was going to beat it. The key, he said, was to keep a healthy state of mind. I believed him then, as I believe him now.
It wasn’t just the freezing room in which Lambeth dumped him; the hours he had to walk back and forth to Stockwell Tube in winter weather searching for rental accommodation while Lambeth’s housing officers did nothing and called it ‘working from home’; or the divan that was so uncomfortable he ended up sleeping on the floor. It was the indifference and professional incompetence of the officers paid by Lambeth Council to leave him in a place designed to destroy his spirit while raking in £850/month in public money for Midos Property Investment and Management.
When they dumped him in the Stockwell slum on 4 November, Peter Tapsell was a physically delicate but mentally strong man, confident he would soon be moving into a small but inhabitable rental property suited to his age and health and close to his friends and support networks. Less than 3 weeks later, on 24 November, he was admitted to St. Thomas’ hospital with chest pains. A week later he was back. He would never leave his hospital bed again. It took Lambeth Council less than 6 weeks of neglect to put Peter Tapsell in his grave.
Further reading by the same author:
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