A year ago this week Britain went into its first national lockdown. Though it seems several lifetimes ago that’s all it is. But in spite of vaccine supply hiccups we’re still on course to celebrate flaming June in style. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, Boris Johnson has done a bit of growing up lately.
Over-promising, under-delivering? He’s learned the hard way the error of his ways.
That said, the hack in him lives on. Hence this snappy quote a couple of days before he got inoculated:
‘The Oxford jab is safe and the Pfizer jab is safe. The thing that isn’t safe is catching Covid.’
The death toll, particularly among the elderly, will testify to that. Though Britain’s runaway rollout of the vaccines has cut fatalities among the over-eighties by nearly ninety per cent.
Johnson was also, however, drawing a line under the EU’s collective collywobbles over, as it turns out, a seemingly non-existent link between the British-generated inoculation and fatal blood clots.
The mass hysteria was clottish indeed. As it’s now been established the risk is one in two million. And there’s no established connection.
Not only that, there are real hopes that the science behind the Pfizer/BioNTech can be harnessed to offer protection against cancer.
Perhaps even within a couple of years, according to the couple who devised it.
So much for the flurry of antivax headlines. To echo Macbeth: ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
Same as suggestions Scotland’s independence is toast, thanks to the imminent resignation of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Not so, as it turns out.
Shenanigans over the investigation into harassment allegations against her predecessor have raged on for months.
And the flak zapping Sturgeon’s way was she told fibs about how much she knew and when. So that was it. Curtains for her.
In the event, the killer blow did not get landed, and the Scots will probably judge her not guilty when they go to the polls in May.
Though she would probably share the take on unfolding events set out by one of the lads in a much-loved Alan Bennett play.
‘How do I define history? It’s just one f*cking thing after another.’
But no one can dispute the reality of Covid-19, and its direct and indirect consequences.
Premature deaths, domestic abuse, undiagnosed cancer, financial woes, mental collapse… the list is long and lamentable.
And behind the front line there are the subtler side-effects, eating into just about everyone.
Examining these from a glass-half-full perspective, however, may provide readers with the following crumb of comfort.
You are not alone!
The phrase ‘lockdown brain’ was coined as far back as last May. Daily Telegraph feature writer Eleanor Steafel described it thus:
‘It crept up slowly. First the days seemed to blur into one, weekdays becoming indistinguishable from weekends, days from nights.
‘Time has changed and now it goes from 4:30pm to 11:21pm with no minutes in between.’
No surprise there, if we’re to accept the diagnosis of Professor John Cacioppo, widely regarded as the godfather of social neuroscience.
His thesis is that we are hard-wired as a species to interact.
So if a human zoo should ever be designed its inhabitants should come with the health warning: ‘Do not house in isolation.’
And Liz Ritchie, a therapeutic psychotherapist at Northampton-based mental health charity St Andrew’s Healthcare, heartily agrees.
Loneliness, she contends, causes the release of stress hormones.
‘That impacts on neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline, which all play a key role in brain function and mood.’
Catherine Loveday, cognitive neuropsychology prof at Westminster Uni, also talks of the negative effect of a repetitive lifestyle.
It’s been termed ‘brain fog’. Finding, for example, you’ve walked into a room then wondered why you entered in the first place.
Sound familiar, anyone?
Another factor causing that is uncertainty, Loveday believes.
‘We have this limited working memory capacity, which means we can only hold and manipulate a certain amount of information in our mind at any one time,’ she says.
‘If you are worrying about something or having to work harder on something it will take up that space.’
To cap it all, she cites a recent experiment on sea slugs. If they’re regularly prodded, the boffins found, they stopped responding.
In lockdown, she says, without anywhere to go or anything to do, we are all that sea slug.
‘We respond to our circumstances, and when they become very unchanging or undemanding it is absolutely to be expected people’s concentration will go.’
Professor Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist based at Liverpool John Moores Uni, puts it another way.
He argues the brain is a muscle which needs to be exercised and challenged by social interaction, novelty and variety. So, he adds:
‘We are beginning to see some consequences in terms of memory, loneliness, depression and anxiety when you switch off that ability to socialise.’
If he’s right that the brain is merely a muscle, like any other, then, hopefully, we can repair it when life returns to normal.
And it’s not just that regular physical exercise keeps our bodies healthy and fit.
Research by Dr Christian Rominger at Graz uni in Austria has shown that it can also increase our creative thinking.
There’s been plenty of that going on lately at the Australian National Uni, on behalf of a critically endangered species of songbird.
It seems music really is the food of love for the fast diminishing regent honeyeater community.
The problem being, the boffins have figured out, the bloke regent honeyeaters have forgotten how to sing the songs their would-be lady friends like.
Instead, the silly sods have been copying the old rubbish churned out by friarbirds and cuckooshrikes. Which really won’t do.
But Dr Ross Crates, an ecologist who’s been busily tracking the birds’ singing and breeding patterns, has sorted a solution.
He and his team have started playing to the boys recordings of the right sort of songs.
Also, he’s lined them up with some of the few veterans still around who can teach them how it’s done.
The old ones are always the best? Sounds like it.
And there are some old habits we all have that come just as naturally to other species.
Same as us, chimps are sociable creatures. And the keepers at two Czech zoos noticed they were missing the punters.
To get round the problem the techies set up a live online link so they could at least have zoom meetings with one another.
Same as us, again, the chimps at first found the whole thing a turn-off, then gradually got used to gawping at screens.
What have we humans done since we were kids when we go to the flicks? We grab popcorns or whatever, to munch at.
And what do the chimps do when they’re taking in the action? Exactly the same thing. You couldn’t make it up.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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