The Deep Breath Before The Plunge

File:2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine animated.gif

Almost two years ago, it was becoming clear in Britain and most other countries that the coronavirus was a global problem and not merely a regional one. There were cases identified in the UK in January 2020, through February its news coverage slowly outgrew that of Brexit, with stories of panic buying and rising case rates, but much of ordinary life went on. By mid-March the crisis had become unavoidable – the government was giving daily press conferences and many public places (including universities) were shutting down. Hand sanitiser dispensers and social distance signs popped up all over. Then, on 23rd, the entire country went into the first lockdown. The Britain at the end of that month felt like a wholly different world from what it had been at the beginning. For other countries the exact dates vary but the overall phenomenon is very much the same. In retrospect, there was something particularly surreal about the week of 17th-23rd, where for many it may have felt like an unplanned holiday, the full weight of the disaster looming but having yet to hit.

Now, after twenty-three months of on-and-off disease control, much of the developed world is transitioning from “pandemic” to “endemic” and returning to something like normality. In Scotland and Wales, all remaining COVID-induced restrictions are set to be lifted by the end of next month. In Northern Ireland they were lifted on 15th of this one. In England they went on Thursday. By superb coincidence, that was the same day the Vladimir Putin launched a full-on invasion of Ukraine.

Compared to the virus, this is neither as surprising nor as sudden – Russia has been in a state of war with its western neighbour for just over eight years, and diplomatic relations with other countries have been tense throughout that time, including many accusations of election meddling, political bribery and even assassination. Over the last few months the pressure could be seen rising. It was generally understood that war would properly break out at some point, but not exactly when. I remember Lucy Worsley’s Empire of the Tsars airing in early 2016, with quite a few online quips that the BBC wanted to get the filming done quickly in case war was imminent. Now, at the time of typing, it looks as if momentum has gathered – countries are, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, freezing (soon it could even be seizing) the financial assets of Russian businessmen and officials, as well as banning such people from their airspace. Sporting organisations look to ban Russia from their games. Britain is even sending troops to Eastern Europe. Other countries are doing likewise, or at least supplying equipment to the Ukranians themselves.

All that being said, we are not yet actually at war. British and Russian embassies to each other remain open, as do those in most other countries. It remains to be seen how long that lasts. The situation of the tens of thousands of Russian people living in Britain is perilous, as is that of Russian businesses trading here, or vice versa. This week’s invasion has been dubbed the largest conventional warfare operation in Europe since World War 2, and cries of World War 3 are widespread – and they are not meant jokingly this time. In the books that my late grandmother bought for me about the first two, it was mentioned that before the United States’s involvement, British and German ambassadors in Washington DC were competing with each other for American military contracts, and that private businesses within the allied and axis territories continued trading with each other (including weapons) right up until the declarations of war took effect. It will be interesting to see how much of that is repeated with Russia Today.

Speaking of Russia Today, RT continues to broadcast in this country. Suffice to say, its coverage of the invasion differs sharply from that of most other networks. The channel has been under review by Ofcom, and the leaders of the Labour and Scottish National parties have called for its termination. This has already been done in Poland and Germany, though the latter’s own public broadcasting service was reciprocally banned in Russia and there are fears that the BBC would suffer the same fate. I discovered RT in late 2012, at the same time as I was covering the Soviet Union for GCSE history. I appreciated the level of attention it gave to topics other channels thought less important, such as SOPA/PIPA/CISPA/ACTA and the Snowden revelations, as well as its documentaries on a variety of topics. If nothing else, it was good for checking the aspect ratio settings on one’s television, being for the time one of very few networks still airing in 4:3. All that being said, as a state-controlled news outlet it was never entirely trustworthy, and one could always sense that it was going out of its way to depict western democracies – and indeed “The West” as a concept – in the worst possible light and to encourage any kind of crankery that would undermine Russia’s strategic rivals.

As many are now pointing out, the true strength of Russian propaganda is online rather than on television, and that will be much trickier to sort out. The powers, rights and obligations of the large social media sites to intervene on political matters has long been controversial, as have measures to restrict the digital activity of Russia in particular. If the situation continues to escalate we may well see YouTube channels and Twitter accounts being suspended en-masse, as well as purges of suspicious users from message boards. As far as the pandemic comparison goes, we must currently be at least at the second or third week of March. I dread to think what the fourth looks like.

OTHER ANALYSES

  • Putin’s Power and Western Impotence by David Starkey. He says that Putin seeks to revive Tsarism not Stalinism, and that he understands that all authority derives from force whereas Western nations have forgotten this. Starkey condemns Angela Merkel for shutting down Germany’s nuclear plants in favour of Russian gas, as well as all European nations for letting their militaries wither. This being Starkey, he also takes potshots at 16-year-old girls.

UPDATE (2nd March)

RT’s television channel is off air and YouTube, along with other platforms, has hidden all of its videos.

Warwick the Kingmaker by John Reid

Today I attended another virtual meeting of the Richard III Society Gloucester Branch. The presentation was by John Reid, discussing the historical reputation of Richard’s father-in-law Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, popularly nicknamed “The Kingmaker”.

Warwick has been hugely divisive to contemporaries as well as historians, Ricardians, Lancastrians and Yorkists. He was England’s greatest celebrity of the fifteenth century and his fame (or infamy) carried on into the twentieth). He even had a board game named after him.

He became the premier earl in England in 1449 due to lucky deaths. His family were great winners in the lottery of aristocratic marriages – picking up the estates of the Beauchamps and Despensers. His patchwork of armorial quartering reflects the complexity of his family connections. He had initially supported Henry VI, but changed sides in 1452 largely due to his inheritance disputes with the Duke of Somerset.

Henry VI, due in part to inherited mental health troubles, proved spectacularly incompetent, and many considered Richard, Duke of York to be king by right – though Reid showed us York’s signature on the letters patent of 1454 appointing Henry’s son Edward of Lancaster as Prince of Wales, clearly showing that even at this late stage he was not disputing the latter’s right. When eventually he rebelled against the Lancastrian crown he had Warwick’s invaluable support. York’s son Edward, Earl of March rescued Warwick from Margaret of Anjou and Warwick in turn arranged his coronation as Edward IV. For the first three years of Edward’s reign Warwick was thought “third king”, being virtual governor of the realm, acquiring even more land (after he confiscated the estates of the Percy and Clifford families, he wound up with lordships in twenty-eight English counties and a handful in Wales) and an annual income of at least £10,000 (nearly £11m in 2021 money).

Matters of matrimony spoiled his status: Warwick had spent months lobbying for a French princess to marry his king, and was humiliated by the revelation that Edward had already married – in secret – to Elizabeth Woodville, a dowager dame whose family had fought for the Lancastrian side. He described the parvenu Woodvilles as “grasping and charmless”, resenting how many titles, offices and marriages were given to them at the expense of his own dynasty, and how their influence over the crown came to displace his. Reid drew parallels with the modern-day rivalry between Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings.

Warwick’s first coup against Edward occurred in the summer of 1469. He launched his second in 1471, making a deal with Margaret of Anjou on 22 July and reinstating Henry VI on 3 October. He was killed at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. Reid noted that this was the only time he had fought on foot rather than horseback, leaving him with no easy way to escape when the tide turned against him and he was isolated from his allies on the field. This was very similar to the way Richard III would die fourteen years later.

The earl was adept at his own spin so contemporary sources are often too kind to him. Later writers were often too harsh. In particular Burgundian writers made him a bogeyman, believing that his policies would lead to their absorption by France. He had something of a rehabilitation under the Tudors – Henry VII wanted Henry VI to be declared a saint.

In summing up, Reid discussed Warwick’s virtues and vices. He was confident, charismatic, charming, courageous and energetic. He was treated shabbily by Edward IV after 1464. He may have been the model for Sir Lancelot as envisioned by Sir Thomas Mallory. On the other hand he can be seen as seeking power only for himself and being motivated by personal feuds rather than the national interest. His military skill is doubted, as is his necessity in the Yorkist accession. Could Edward IV have made himself king without Warwick’s help? Were the Woodvilles any worse than the Nevilles?

After the presentation itself had concluded and most attendees had logged out, there was a lengthy discussion between one attendee (Sean O’Neill) and the host (Cynthia) over the intricacies of Zoom functions – because various buttons were appearing and disappearing depending on the settings of individual hosts and updates by the company. This led to an explanation of the difficulties of an organisation managing virtual meetings, then one into internet difficulties generally as well as experiences of coronavirus. I mentioned having tested positive in November, and my experience with Hubbnet. I remarked that I would have been truly screwed had the pandemic hit in the period of 2009-13 when my house relied on plugabble WiFi dongles for very limited internet access. The two were surprised to realise that I lived near Hull, the former having once lived in North Ferriby and the latter in Hessle. They started asking me if Kingston Telecoms or Kingston Communications still existed (they do).

Cold Starting the Carr

Throughout the past two years I have been a regular viewer of Jimmy Carr’s YouTube channel. He has uploaded many full-length videos of his old standup specials, as well as dozens of shorter compilation videos. He even did a quiz to entertain those trapped in lockdown, although this content has subsequently faded from prominence, condensed into a few large weekly compilations.

Late last year, he announced that after getting by for so long by endlessly rehashing old material, he was finally releasing a new show, albeit not on YouTube. His Dark Material premiered on Christmas Day.

There are two segments which focus on the events of the past two years, but these are relatively brief and the majority of the material is interchangeable with what one comes to expect from all his other concerts – I even caught a few classic lines being reused.

His earlier shows primarily used a static multi-camera format, with occasional panning to keep up with him as he walks about the stage or to focus on a heckling audience member. His later output features much greater use of swooping shots from behind while he’s standing still, as well as over the audience. This can be a little surreal at times, giving the impression that one is watching a film (perhaps a biopic) rather than a live event. It also, unfortunately, highlights the increasing sagginess of Carr’s face.

A consequence of watching so many compilations of much older material is that one develops a mental cache of a celebrity’s face, hair, voice and mannerisms that averages out as being a few years into the past, which then makes it a shock to see how they’ve changed when new material finally arrives. The problem is exacerbated if the “new” material is actually delayed for a long time. I have discussed this before in relation to ‘Cats Does Countdown: Throughout 2020 and into 2021 the programming still consisted wholly of holdovers from 2019, and it was quite jarring when post-COVID footage (only four episodes so far) finally arrived showing Sean Lock‘s deathly pallor, Katherine Ryan’s increased girth and, of course, Carr’s hair transplant (which he got after the Lockdown quiz and laughs at in this special).

Later in the special Carr pondered the passing of the ages in a different way – by lecturing to the younger members of the audience about how social interaction, telephony and taxi rides used to work in the 1990s. Here I must digress into a rant about a common trend I have witnessed among comedians and other social commentators – premature declarations of obsolescence. As someone born in the cusp of generations Y and Z (sometimes called a “Zillennial”), I will say for the record that well into the noughties I was playing and recording cassettes and VHS tapes (many of which I still have). I also operated fax machines a few times and stored some school projects on diskettes. Even restricting to the past five years I have regularly sent and received paper letters (both typed and handwritten), paid for things in cash, driven a car with hand-wound rear windows and made calls on public payphones. On at least two occasions I have ridden on trains pulled by steam locomotives. The notion pushed by so many talking heads that all of these things are entirely alien to anyone born after about 1995 has never quite rung true to me.

Guts for Garters

For the last few Decembers I have eagerly awaited the release of the new year honours list. Normally they arrive a few days before the actual new year, but this time around they came with barely an hour to spare.

There were, as to be expected, a great many awards given on ministerial advice for those involved in fighting COVID, but at the very top were three new appointments made at Her Majesty’s personal discretion to the Order of the Garter: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, her daughter-in-law; Valerie, Baroness Amos, former Lord President of Her Privy Council; and Tony Blair, her former Prime Minister.

While sons (and in modern times also daughters) of the reigning monarch are appointed to the order routinely it is rare for royals by marriage. The only examples in the past two hundred years are of those married to the sovereigns themselves – Albert two months in advance of his wedding, Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth shortly after their husbands’ accessions. Camilla and the late Prince Philip are the only consorts to receive the garter while their spouses were not yet on the throne. I wonder if she shall use the same stall that he did?

Amos is a former leader of the House of Lords (like Lord Salisbury, and indeed others of that title before him). She also served a brief term as High Commissioner to Australia and an even briefer one as International Development Secretary.

Tony Blair appointed Amos to most of those offices. It used to be the norm for former Prime Ministers to join the order, up to and including John Major in 2005 it became rare to see party politicians appointed. It was long assumed that Blair had declined any honours if indeed he was ever offered them, whether that was due to his personal distaste for them (he portrayed himself as a moderniser rather than a traditionalist, and was often observed to behave more like a US President than a British minister), or potential public backlash over controversies stemming from his premiership. What has persuaded him to accept the award now, fifteen years on, is not yet known.

These are the first appointments to the order since 2019. There were no Garter Day ceremonies in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic. This year is set to be Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, so one presumes that the Firm will be keen to make up for lost time.

Today’s news will have interesting ramifications heraldry-wise: Camilla has of course been openly armigerous since 2005, and Sodacan has already updated his graphic of her arms to include the Garter circlet. Amos has been a peeress all my life, and typically appears early on in the pages of Burke’s and Debrett’s, but has never been shown with any armorial design. She may therefore receive a brand new grant in the coming months. Blair is especially confusing, though he is joining an English order of chivalry, he may be Scottish for heraldic purposes and so it would be Lyon not Garter arranging his grant.

SEE ALSO

And Ever Shall Be

It was always difficult to work out the exact year in which a given episode of Victoria was taking place, given the series’ sloppiness with chronology. Series 2 ended with “Luxury & Conscience” in which Sir Robert Peel resigns as prime minister following the murder of his personal secretary Edward Drummond – events which actually took place three years apart. Series 3 picks up with “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”, which covers the revolutions of 1848 and features Lord John Russell in charge. Dialogue indicates that the return of the Whigs to government is a recent development. In between these installments is the 2017 Christmas special “Comfort & Joy”, set in 1846 and showing, among other things, the adoption of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (which happened in 1850). The curious thing about the Christmas special is the absence of the political side of things. In real life Russell’s ministry had already been in place for six months but, in the series’ uncertain timeline, the political situation is simply ignored. This is almost certainly deliberate, as the intention is for the holiday special to be a purely family affair. Plus, with more than a year’s gap between the series it’s entirely possible that the later story arcs hadn’t yet been planned out, nor the relevant characters cast.

Flash forward to 2021: The Duke of Edinburgh had wished for a low-key funeral (well, by royal standards at any rate), and the pandemic meant that something on the scale of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 or even Lady Thatcher’s in 2013 would not be possible. Instead Philip’s coffin was driven a short distance within the bounds of Windsor Castle and then lowered into the vault. Hundreds of soldiers were still present outside, but COVID regulations forbade more than thirty attendees. Ordinarily it would be expected that prime ministers and other senior officials would attend, but Boris Johnson (and, presumably, any others concerned) relinquished his place to make room for more of the deceased’s family. The resulting guest list included eighteen descendants of King George V, eight spouses thereof, three other descendants of Queen Victoria and one spouse thereof. I had wondered if the family or the press would have sought to orchestrate a photograph of Prince George of Cambridge saluting the coffin à la John Kennedy, but it was decided that the great-grandchildren were too young to be involved.

While the masks and social distancing ought to be obvious giveaways, I actually found that the reduced attendance gave the ceremony a strangely timeless quality – it was effectively a bottle show. Other than Mssrs Mozzia and Brooksbank all the people there were the same people one would have expected to see there at had this happened at any point in the last ten years – admittedly Viscount Severn and Lady Louise would have been smaller. Justin Welby might be considered a semi-political figure and he took office in 2013, but as St George’s Chapel is a royal peculiar he played a minor role compared to David Conner, who has been Dean since 1998. Thomas Woodcock as Garter King of Arms could also be considered vaguely political given his role introducing new members of the House of Lords, with that office the public tend to remember the uniform rather than the face. The sounds of the past week, too, were those you’d expect to hear: steady footsteps, military orders, cannon blasts, church bells, and, from the studio, the interminable wittering of Gyles Brandreth. Now the burbling of a Land Rover TD5 has been added to the mix. Even that adds to the timeless effect, since the Defender was in production for a third of a century and without a number plate even I – a subscriber to Land Rover Enthusiast for a few years – could not guess at a glance the decade in which this one was constructed.

Those who have studied British political history know that long ago the House of Commons met in St Stephen’s Chapel, with the Speaker’s chair on the altar steps and the members facing each other in the choir stalls – an arrangement which has been maintained in subsequent legislative chambers in Britain and around the world. As a consequence today’s proceedings – with only a few dozen people carefully spaced apart – resembled a session of the hybrid house, or perhaps even the failed 1am prorogation in 2019. Hopefully on this occasion the ceremony won’t have to be repeated a month later.

Having already done a piece about television scheduling in light of COVID, it would be pertinent to review it in relation to the royal death. Of course major newspapers and broadcasters have documentaries and obituaries prepared years in advance of the event – not just for the Duke of Edinburgh but for a wide range of prominent public figures. Eye 1545 page 18 notes how, in the build up to his centenary on 10th June, contributors often had to do each interview twice – the first speaking in present tense wearing light suits, the second in past tense wearing black ones. It was also noted that, in addition to different networks’ documentaries often – and unavoidably – using the same stock footage and delivering the same story as each other, there were some instances of companies recycling interview footage from their own documentaries in 2011 or even 2007, with talking heads who nowadays are visibly much older or even who themselves have died in the intervening years.

On other occasions this temporal tangle would be cause for disdain, but to commemorate a man who has been “a constant” for longer than most of the world can remember, somehow it feels oddly appropriate.

UPDATE (20th April)

The video I originally embedded (from the firm’s own YouTube channel) has now been set to private. The BBC’s has also disappeared. I have replaced it with the Teletrece version.

UPDATE (1st May)

That one has gone as well. I’m now using the one from 6abc Philadelphia.

An Insoluble Problem

Nearly five years ago, in one of my earliest posts on this site, I discussed how the National Assembly for Wales recalled to deliberate on the Tata steel crisis a few days before the body was due to dissolve for the upcoming elections.

That election day – 5th May 2016 – was dubbed “Super Thursday” by some commentators owing to the great number and variety of different polls going on at the same time around the country. Thursday 6th of this year’s May will be an even bigger event because the pandemic forced a delay in last year’s elections and so this year all those elected in 2016 will be up again as well as those elected in 2017.*

A major difference with this cycle is the need to conform to COVID regulations. The present lockdown is hoped to be the last and most UK adults have now received at least one vaccination, but it is likely that for many months to come there will still be strict controls on public mingling. The rapidity with which the pandemic situation can change, and the consequent need for various legislatures to make adjustments to the law at short notice, has caused another, less visible change in the electoral timetable.

Yesterday the fifth Scottish Parliament sat for what was intended to be its last meeting. Under normal circumstances it would have dissolved today, but instead it is merely receding, with dissolution not set to occur until the day before the election. The Welsh Parliament** undergoes a less drastic change, receding on 7th April and dissolving on 29th. The intention of these changes (which are intended to be a one-off) is to allow either legislature to reconvene should the pandemic require immediate attention during the campaign.

As a Wikipedian, this saves me some work. Normally after the dissolution of a large legislature I and other editors spend many hours racing through the pages of ex-lawmakers to delete the relevant post-nominals and remove any suggestion of incumbency, then reverting after the election as members are voted back in. This time around we have decided not to bother for the Scottish Parliament as the dissolution period will last only a day*** and so we would probably be reverting the edits before we had even finished making them. The Welsh Parliament might still be worth the effort as their dissolution period is a whole week and it has fewer than half as many members. At some point it will be worth looking into the possibility of creating a bot account to make these kinds of edits for us, so rote are they.

The process of dissolution is not universal. In other countries, such as Germany and the United States, incumbent lawmakers continue to hold office until after the election (and may even continue to sit during this time) so that there is no vacancy between old and new members. This is also the case in Britain for most local councillors.

The London Assembly and Mayor will also be up for election this year. Their set up is somewhere between a local government and a national one, and it is not clear from what literature I can find whether it has a dissolution in the way that the parliaments do. Their guide for candidates says that “In normal times it would be expected for the new Mayor and Assembly Members to come into office on Sunday 9th May, following declaration of the election results on Friday 7th May.” which to me suggests that the outgoing Mayor and AMs remain incumbent during the election period.

*Exceptions are Scottish and Welsh local elections which are on a five year cycle and the Northern Ireland Assembly which had a snap election in March 2017. These will all be up again on 5th May 2022.
**The change of name from National Assembly for Wales to Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru) occurred on 6th May. AMs simultaneously became MSs.
***In practice it could be more like two or even three days depending on the exact hour on which dissolution occurs and the time taken to count the votes.

FURTHER READING

Something Along Those Lines

As much as I write blog posts and make Wikipedia edits concerning Sudrian lore my personal experience of real trains is not extensive – my last rail journey was in 2016. There is little railway coverage in East Yorkshire, though hints of its former extent can occasionally be glimpsed. In the three times I have been to London I of course used the underground a lot: The first two were with family at New Year 2004 (staying near Golders Green) and 2005 (staying near King’s Cross). The canned phrase “This train terminates at Morden via Bank.” from the Northern Line remained burned into my mind for some time afterward. The third was with school in 2015 on a day trip to the Hunterian Museum and the Royal Society. On that occasion I lost my pass shortly before we were due to catch the East Coast train back to Hull Paragon, but was spared from an awkward situation by the fact that the one remaining ticket barrier at King’s Cross had been mysteriously left open.

While living at Cottingham I often went on walks past the Thwaite Street level crossing and around the neighbouring station, but never had cause to actually get on the trains (perhaps just as well – they were mostly the notorious Pacers, after all) that went there.

In the last week I have voraciously consumed the YouTube offerings of Geoff Marshall, who has spent many years making short documentaries about British trains, particularly those on the London Underground. He and his wife Vicki Pipe made it their mission to visit all of Great Britain’s mainline train stations in 2017. In particular they highlighted stops at the least used stations, including some that appear to be spookily unpopulated.

Remarkably Marshall’s efforts continued even during the pandemic, including an episode about a train being used as a rapid COVID test centre. In addition to cutting edge modern trains, Marshall also does a few episodes about the emotional retirement of older stock and special appearances by vintage steam locomotives. The series is well worth a watch, although scenes of sweaty commuters huddled together on the crowded tube can be hard to watch nowadays.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Geoff Marshall:

Trains in Yorkshire:

UPDATE (23rd March)

I have compiled all the videos and photographs I took of the trains in Hull and Cottingham, which can be found here. The password is hull.

The Chris Whitty Collection

Since about 2015 I have been an avid consumer of the public lectures put out by Gresham College. Initially the main draw for me was Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures on politics, followed by Simon Thurley’s series on the history of British architecture. The college has a sizeable online back-catalogue in addition to a high rate of new updates, so I was rarely stuck for something to watch.

By 2019 (or maybe it was 2018) I was branching out into lectures about medicine. I do not recall exactly which such video it was that I chose first and nor, until last year, did I remember much about the speaker. When the coronavirus crisis began and the government began doing daily press conferences, I did not think of Professor Whitty as a familiar name or face. Occasionally I think this of a public figure only to discover that I have edited their Wikipedia page years prior, but even that was not the case here. It was only upon searching for him on YouTube and finding familiar thumbnails that I realised I had seen him before.

Sure enough, Whitty spent some years as Visiting Professor of Public Health, and is currently Professor of Physic. He has produced seven series of lectures for the college since 2013, and continues to do so even during the pandemic.

In addition to these he has been the star – or at least a participant – of quite a few other videos over the years.

As far back as July 2012 he gave the Walker Institute Annual Lecture for the University of Reading, talking about Climate Change & Development in Africa.

In February 2013 he gave a speech at the STEPS Centre Symposium about the importance of evidence in health policy. In contrast to his eventual catchphrase, he makes a point here of deliberately including no slides at all. There was also a Q&A session.

In September 2014 he told the Science & Development Network why synthesis is key to science influence.

In late January 2015 he lectured the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene on forty years of fighting Malaria. That October he returned to talk about the pitfalls of eradication attempts.

In March he was a team of speakers lecturing the Royal Society of London about the inside story of the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

In June 2015 he chaired a panel discussion on the control of Malaria, presented by the Faculty of 1000.

In this one from five years ago he is interviewed alongside Professor Dame Sally Davies (his predecessor as Chief Medical Officer for England) about the experience of giving medical advice to the government.

In 2016 he gave a speech to launch the Centre for Global Health Research for Brighton & Sussex Medical School, in which he talks about global demography and its implications for the prevalence of various diseases.

The next week he appeared alongside Nicola Blackwood MP (then Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee) and others in a panel discussion on Ebola vaccination.

Two months later he recorded a short message for International Nurses day, played by the National Institute for Health Research. Another month after that he gave a presentation commemorating the last ten years of the institute’s work.

In July 2017 he was asked how UKCDS contributes to development.

In April 2018 he launched the King’s Global Health Institute. In May he gave the George Griffin Lecture for the Association of Physicians of Great Britain & Ireland, talking about the direction of health research. That December he gave a short speech at the IDEAL International Conference about the importance of scientific evaluation of innovation.

In September 2019 he was filmed by the Medical Research Council advising on how to influence policy and practice in health prevention.

The most interesting videos are those from the first two months of 2020, just before the pandemic made him famous nationwide. On 23rd January he was interviewed for Public Health England about the importance of physical activity – a theme which has remained prominent in government policy since. On 27th February he appeared at the summit session for the Nuffield Trust to talk about health trends and projections over the next twenty years. At this stage the virus is a looming threat but has not yet taken over. Whitty is asked how he plans to deal with the coming epidemic. His answers are still abstract but already there are references to school closures, banning of mass gatherings and “flattening the peak”.

Leaving YouTube aside for the moment I also found two brief clips of him on DailyMotion: on 31st January he told ODN it was too early to tell if the virus would spread, and outlined the plans the government had in place to stop it. On 6th February he gave advice for those showing symptoms to self-isolate.

On 3rd March the Prime Minister held the first of what would turn out to be a very long series of press conferences on the coronavirus outbreak. Chris Whitty stood to his right and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) to his left. You might expect me to close here by saying “the rest is history” but, unfortunately, this particular piece of history is far from over yet.

The Next State Opening

There has been a lot of uncertainty over the last few years with respect to the beginnings and endings of parliamentary sessions. It might have been hoped that in 2021 the process would go back to normal, with a speech from the throne each May (typically the third Wednesday, with prorogation the week before). Now, alas, the pandemic could have thrown that out as well. A Cheapo’s Guide to London currently hints that it will take place in October, while Parliament’s own website gives no information at all. It is likely that any planned date could be changed many times depending on how events unfold in the coronavirus saga.

The key difference between this year and last is that now we have a smorgasbord of vaccines to thwart the disease and – in contrast to our poor performance in controlling the outbreak – are distributing them much faster than most other countries. Priority for vaccination is given largely in descending order of age, which could mean that for a few months of this year we have the paradoxical situation in which the elderly are safe to mingle outside while the young have to remain shielded. Overall this bodes well for the House of Lords, the majority of whose members are aged 70 and over. The Lord Speaker went for his first vaccine back in December. The Queen received hers in January. If the government’s target of 2 million vaccinations per week is maintained then the majority of Britain’s population, including nearly all peers, should have received at least one vaccine dose by the start of May.

Still, that doesn’t mean the ceremony will be plain sailing: likely there will still be some social distancing required and face coverings will remain prominent, which could dampen the splendour a little. In particular the crowding of MPs in the cramped space behind the bar of the upper chamber could prove dangerous, and it may be required that only a small delegation from the lower house is allowed to come. Of the frontal foursome it is probable that Mr Speaker (63), Black Rod (55) and the Commons Clerk (62-ish) will have immunity but the Serjeant-at-Arms (44) might not. As with the introduction ceremonies there could be some subtle changes in choreography to allow the key players to stand further apart.

The preceding prorogation would need to have such tweaks as well – although attendance for that is usually quite a lot lower anyway. Lady Evans of Bowes Park is by far the youngest of the five commissioners and thus probably the last to be immunised, unfortunate given that as the Leader of the House she is the one least able to be substituted, as well as the one who sits in the middle and the one doing all the talking. It could be that this year’s prorogation is again done with just three commissioners in attendance rather than five. It is hard to find the dimensions of the chamber online but I think there might just be room to space them out properly, though perhaps it may have to be contrived so that they sit in a triangular instead of linear formation.

To make matters worse, the devolved legislatures in Cardiff and Holyrood are expected to go up for election in the same month. They traditionally welcome the monarch for an opening ceremony in the summer months – though unlike in Wesminster the speech is not a prerequisite for the commencement of parliamentary business. As with so much in this phenomenon, all we can do is wait and see.

UPDATE (22nd March)

The government has put out a press release announcing that the state opening will be on Tuesday 11th May, “adapted, with reduced ceremonial elements and attendees to ensure it is COVID-secure”.