Euro 2020, a manufactured ‘culture war’, anti-vaxxers, a rare resignation and the fall of Kabul – the summer of 2021 was an eventful one

JUNE

On 1 June, brilliant sunshine embraced the British Isles in the wake of a Bank Holiday Monday that had been the hottest day of the year. The warmer days, falling Coronavirus infections and loosening restrictions gave hope – once again – that the worst might be over and there was comfort in the news there had been no recorded COVID-19 deaths in the previous 24 hours.

Two days later, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi hailed “another important milestone” as it was revealed that more than 50% of British adults had now received both doses. Urging others to come forward, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock enthused: “Let’s roll up our sleeves and put this pandemic behind us, once and for all!”

It was time to Get COVID Done. But, much like leaving the EU, that was easier said than done.

Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on COVID-19 told Sky News: “It’s always the most dangerous moment, when you’re managing an infectious disease, as you get that curve coming right down to zero. It’s at that point that if you release your precautions too quickly then a spike will come back up and given that we’ve got new variants… we have to be doubly careful.”

‘Vaccine-beating’ variants would emerge, Dr Nabarro predicted and it would be reckless to think that it was all over.

A week on, as Italy faced Turkey in the first game of the Euro 2020 football tournament in Rome, the World Health Organisation urged caution again about what could become a super-spreader event.

In the UK, some seemed far more bothered about the virus of ‘wokery’ infecting the England squad. When the team was booed for taking the knee – reflecting its stance to stand against racial injustice – at a warm-up fixture against Austria, manager Gareth Southgate told a press conference: “We feel, more than ever, we are determined to take the knee throughout the tournament… we’re all trying to move towards equality – and support out team-mates because of some of the experiences they’ve been through.”

With the first match approaching, Laurence Fox, fresh from his humiliation in the London Mayoral election, took to Twitter to declare that “I’m embarrassed to be British”. He wrote: “I hope any team but ours wins in any future sporting endeavour. Tell me a single thing to moderate my thinking? Millionaire woke babies protesting inequality on 200,000 grand a week. We deserve everything that is coming. Weak men. Weak.”

England’s players took the knee at their first match against Croatia at Wembley on 13 June. A vocal group of supporters from both sides booed – although, to their credit, many England fans responded by trying to drown-out the noise with applause. The Croatian players stood.

England won the game – and then won and won again, reaching the Euro 2020 final on 11 July, in which it lost on penalties. Football may not have come home – but they had done themselves and us very proud indeed.

When the three players who had missed penalties – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – received racial abuse in the days following, their fellow England player Tyrone Mings confronted the Home Secretary on Twitter when she condemned it, having previously accused the team of conducting “gesture politics” by taking the knee.

The Delta variant of the Coronavirus was now the dominant strain. By 17 June, there were 10,000 daily cases – the highest figure since February – and, while deaths and hospitalisations remained low, it was clear that the pandemic was not over.

Current affairs lovers could at least console themselves with both a brand-new news channel and a very current political affair.

GB News‘ first night on 13 August was more The Play that Goes Wrong than ‘Fox News UK’. Having promised, at some considerable length, that the ‘anti-woke’ channel would “give a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced in our great national debates” Andrew Neil introduced his team.

Neil – whose history of being sidelined and silenced included being chairman of the Spectator magazine, the former editor of The Sunday Times, founding chairman of Sky News and the host of high-profile BBC shows – was joined by other silenced figures including a former ITV newsreader, a plummy ex-Guido Fawkes ‘reporter’, a former Sky News anchor, at least two former Brexit Party MEPs, and former ‘national treasure’ Neil Oliver – whose set piece rants to camera would delight fans of unhinged blather for the rest of the year.

Plagued with technical hitches, the launch was widely mocked and, just a few days later, Neil retreated to his French villa – never to return. He later described his involvement with GB News as the “single biggest mistake of my life”.

Then there was Matt Hancock. The Health and Social Care Secretary’s squirm-inducing dalliance with his advisor and friend, Gina Coladangelo, was captured by a seemingly covert camera in his office and later leaked to the Sun newspaper.

The footage had been shot on 6 May and, since ‘intimate contact between different households’ only became permissible from 17 May, the pair were clearly in breach of regulations. In a rare resignation, Hancock quit but here, perhaps, were the first signs that the Conservative Party viewed lockdowns in terms of ‘one rule for us and another for them’ – an attitude that was to later come back and bite it.

Hancock later let it be known that he was planning to write a book called How I Won the COVID War and was already in talks with HarperCollins for a deal worth a “six-figure sum”. HarperCollins, very sensibly, denied all knowledge of it.


JULY

July saw the Batley and Spen by-election being held. The contest, in the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox’s former seat, was brought about by the resignation of incumbent Labour MP Tracy Brabin, following her election as Mayor of West Yorkshire.

Labour’s majority had fallen sharply – by 12.8% – in the 2019 General Election and the Conservatives clearly hoped that there was a chance to unpick another brick in Labour’s once-iconic ‘Red Wall’.

The bad-tempered contest, which attracted all manner of dissemblers and agitators, eventually saw Kim Leadbeater – Jo Cox’s sister – scrape home with a majority of just 323 votes. The Conservatives came second and clearly saw their progress as a win.

There was further good news for the Conservative right when, on 13 July, MPs backed a £4 billion cut to the overseas aid budget, slashing it down to 0.5% of Government expenditure. For a decade, right-wing politicians including prominent Christian millionaire Jacob Rees Mogg and ‘Poundshop Enoch Powell’ Nigel Farage had backed the move. But it left many decent people appalled.

This was “the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”, according to former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major. “It seems that we can afford a ‘national yacht’ that no one either wants or needs, whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world.”

There was more misery to come for those seeking help from the UK.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, asylum seekers had increasingly turned to smugglers to transport them across the English Channel into Britain. Despite asylum claims being down on the past three years and sitting at a near 20-year low, Farage and the right had turned these desperate people’s plight into an ‘invasion’.

Matters came to a head in late July when Farage, now hired as a GB News presenter, denounced the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – which had been doing its work of saving lives in the Channel – as a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”. The attack backfired and donations to the RNLI rose 3,000% – suggesting that the anti-immigrant rhetoric was wearing thin with many in the UK. But not all.

In total, between January and November 2021, at least 25,700 people tried to make the perilous Channel crossing. In a single day on 24 November, 27 died when their boat capsized. A pregnant woman and three children were among the victims. The comments beneath news posts about the tragedy were enough to make anyone with a heart lose faith in humanity.

These were not just boon times for hate-mongers. The summer months saw a growth in anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine fervour.

In late May, thousands of people marched through London against measures, claiming that the pandemic was a hoax. One large demonstration the previous month had resulted in COVID-enablers gathering outside the home of England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, where they shouted “traitor” and “murderer” through megaphones. The following day, two men – Jonathan Chew and Lewis Hughes – accosted Prof Whitty in London’s St James’ Park, raising fears for the safety of public servants in an increasingly febrile environment. The men were later charged.

In England, 19 July marked ‘Freedom Day’ – a date picked at random months earlier – to signal the end of all lockdown and pandemic restrictions. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak both spent the day in self-isolation after coming into contact with Sajid Javid who had tested positive for the Coronavirus several days before.

There were hopes of a post-Freedom Day economic boost but the ‘pingdemic’ caused a huge staff shortfall in the retail and hospitality sectors and overall July saw growth of just 0.1%. While the UK economy remained sluggish, the conspiracy theory and anti-lockdown hysteria sectors continued to boom. On Freedom Day itself, there was a small riot in Westminster, which ended with anti-vaccine protestors throwing bottles at police.

An event in central London the following weekend culminated in a mass rally in Trafalgar Square, which saw lizard botherer David Icke, Gillian McKeith, conspiracy theorist Piers Corbyn, AIDS denialist Vernon Coleman, and Katie Hopkins address the crowd. One of the speakers, Kate Shemirani, had been struck off the nursing register in June for denying the existence of COVID-19 and comparing the NHS to “Auschwitz”.

“At the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung,” she told the audience, so “if you are a doctor or a nurse, now is the time to get off that bus. Get off it and stand with us, the people, all around the world they are rising.”


AUGUST

On 9 August, a further London protest culminated in a mob marching on the BBC’s headquarters. Unfortunately, they failed to consult Wikipedia first and, having descended on the BBC Television Centre in White City, security guards were obliged to inform them that the Corporation had left the building – in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Government’s confected ‘culture war’ continued apace. Another front was opened in August, with the launch of yet another new group seeking to rescue history from the menace of ‘woke’ iconoclasts.

History Reclaimed, a supposedly independent group of scholars – including Robert Tombs, Andrew Roberts and Nigel Biggar – set out its stall with much fanfare and puff on the pages of the right-wing press. “A shared history is a necessary foundation for a successful democracy”, the group declared on its website adding that it would “produce a stream of new writing which will both set the agenda for historical debate, and call-out fake history”.

For such a purportedly ‘non-partisan’ group, there seemed to be considerable ties and links with the think tanks at Tufton Street. There was significant cross-over too between them and the increasingly influential ‘Common Sense Group’ of 50 Conservative MPs who are seeking to be the successors to the European Research Group (ERG).

Late July and early August saw another distraction from the woes of the Coronavirus in the shape of another delayed sporting event. The 22nd Summer Olympics saw Team GB win a total of 65 medals – including 22 golds – with the nation coming fourth overall behind the US, China and Japan.

But, a week after the closing ceremony, America and Britain’s sporting achievements were eclipsed by a monumental foreign policy failure. 

On 14 April, US President Joe Biden had announced that he intended to fulfil Donald Trump’s promise to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The announcement was seen as a ‘green light’ to the Taliban and, from May onwards, it launched an offensive – which by July had brought the group to the very doors of Kabul.

Events played out in a manner eerily reminiscent of the American retreat from Saigon in April 1975. The speed of the Taliban advance caught almost everyone off guard and – as the US, UK and NATO allies sought to evacuate 123,000 from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport – there were chaotic scenes.

On 15 August, Kabul fell and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled with his family into exile.

As the British sought to evacuate an estimated 15,000 personnel, diplomats and Afghan nationals who had been granted asylum in the UK, it transpired that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was on holiday in the Mediterranean – despite being warned that the country could fall two weeks before his break. He later denied reports that he had been asked to return to his desk on 13 August and insisted he had been in constant touch with his team and absolutely not frolicking about in the sea. “In fact, the sea wasn’t open because there was a red flag,” he told the BBC, “so, no one was paddle-boarding.” Raab finally returned to the UK on 16 August.

The Taliban sought to reassure the international community that it had changed its ways – but few believed it. Some risked everything to get out of Afghanistan. On the very day that Raab returned to London, three Afghan nationals – Fida Muhammad, Zaki Anwari, and a 17 year-old-boy known only as Raza – died after falling from a US military aircraft taking off from Kabul airport.

Two days later, more than 100 guards working at the British Embassy in Kabul were informed, by telephone, that they were now unemployed and ineligible for help or asylum because they had been hired by a sub-contractor. One employee told the Guardian: “No one asked whether we are safe or not. No one asked whether our lives are in danger or not.”

Britain had, once again, abandoned its obligations and, for many, it felt that the two-decade war in Afghanistan had been lost and all that had been gained might have been for nothing.

It was left, of all people, to former Prime Minister Theresa May to sum up the mood. “Was our understanding of the Afghan Government so weak? Was our knowledge of the position on the ground so inadequate?” she asked, during a debate in Parliament. “Or, did we just feel that we have to follow the United States, and hope that on a wing and a prayer, it would be alright on the night?”

She could have been speaking about more than the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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