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Sensemaker: Dignity and discord

Friday 16 April 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • China’s economy grew by a record 18.3 per cent over the past year, reflecting its sharp recovery from a Covid-induced shock.
  • Joe Biden responded to Russian cyber attacks with new sanctions on 32 entities and officials.
  • The chair of the UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments told MPs that the problems highlighted by the Greensill scandal needed “immediate address”.

Dignity and discord

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh tomorrow at 3pm in Windsor is being analysed in advance with an obsessiveness that used to be associated with Kremlinologists. Although the BBC will not be clearing its schedules – having received a record 110,000 complaints over its initial coverage of Prince Philip’s death – the ceremony will be broadcast across a range of its channels, with an army of rent-a-quote experts on hand to identify deep significance where, in most cases, none exists.

What does matter:

  • Princes William and Harry – who have reportedly not seen one another face-to-face for more than a year – will not walk together in the procession from the State Entrance of Windsor Castle to the West Steps of St George’s Chapel. On the instructions of the Queen, they will be separated by the human shield of Peter Phillips, the Princess Royal’s 43-year-old son. This arrangement is not a promising portent for those who hope that the funeral might prompt a reconciliation between the two brothers – a reconciliation that is important to the monarchy’s future, as the Second Elizabethan Age draws to a close.
  • The ceremony, meticulously planned by Prince Philip himself, will reflect his lifelong commitment to the services: from the custom-built Land Rover Defender TD5 130 (repainted in military green), which will be used as his hearse, and the buglers of the Royal Marines sounding Action Stations, to the display of the Duke’s hard-won regalia on the altar in the chapel. It is therefore deeply embarrassing that his family was unable to reach an agreement over the wearing of uniforms – Prince Harry’s right to do so being unclear, and the Duke of York (Prince Andrew) insisting, mysteriously, that he was himself entitled to wear the uniform of a full admiral. Again, the newly-widowed Queen was forced to intervene and rule that morning coats or day dress will be worn tomorrow.
  • Covid has ensured that this will be a royal funeral like no other. Face masks will be worn by all attending, and social distancing will be observed. The choir will be composed of only four singers, and mourners will not be permitted to add their voices. Prince Philip had always wanted a simple, no-nonsense funeral – but the pandemic has ensured that the ceremony will be pared down like no royal event of its significance in living memory.

What doesn’t matter:

  • The list of 30 guests says absolutely nothing, either way, about the monarchy’s desire to mount a ceremony that ‘looks like Britain’. That was indeed an issue at the respective funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002. Both were hugely ambitious operations. But the composition of tomorrow’s comparatively tiny congregation entirely reflects no more than a combination of royal protocol and Prince Philip’s personal wishes.
  • The absence of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, may be a relief to members of the royal family still wincing over her Oprah Winfrey interview last month. But it is scarcely a calculated insult for a pregnant woman to avoid a long flight in the midst of a pandemic. Don’t over-interpret a simple medical decision, taken with the advice of her doctors.

Royal-watchers’ tip: Though she will not be present at tomorrow’s funeral, Sarah, Duchess of York – who was disliked by the Duke of Edinburgh – has been meeting the Queen privately for some time. Expect Fergie to be welcomed back into the royal fold in due course.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Those who wait
Data released by NHS England for February shows that waiting lists are now longer than at any time since records began – with around 4.7 million patients languishing in the queue for treatment, the highest tally since at least August 2007. It has come as no surprise that Covid has taken a toll upon other branches of the health service; but the sheer extent of that toll is now the cause of deep alarm. Referrals for urgent cancer treatment, for instance, have dipped by 8 per cent year-on-year, as 15,475 fewer patients have been sent for oncology appointments. Doctors are speaking of an ‘eternal winter’ on their wards – meaning a health service in permanent crisis. Along with long Covid, this will be the greatest structural challenge facing the NHS after the initial vaccine roll-out to all adults is complete.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The newly-disclosed footage of 13-year-old Latino Adam Toledo being shot dead by Chicago police, even though his hands were clearly in the air, is already prompting protests and forced the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to call for calm. Lightfoot described the shooting as “a complicated and nuanced story”. Bodycam footage suggests Toledo was holding a gun when the police saw him, but both Toledo’s hands were raised and empty when the police shot him. It appears that yet again, a young ethnic minority member has been killed by police officers, just as Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot dead on Sunday in Brooklyn Center in Minnesota by former officer Kim Potter, who claims that she thought she was handling a Taser rather than a handgun. Simon & Schuster announced yesterday that it had ditched plans to distribute a book by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers involved in the raid in which Breonna Taylor was killed in March 2020 – posing the question: why was it proposing to distribute the book in the first place? All this has taken place against the grim backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin, charged with second- and third-degree murder, who yesterday waived his right to take the stand. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Nobody expected Jeff Bezos to gloat openly at Amazon’s successful battle to fend off unionisation at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. But the tone of humility in his letter to shareholders yesterday was still striking. “It’s clear to me,” he wrote, “that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees—a vision for their success.” This could, of course, be the boilerplate language of a corporate mogul trying to look magnanimous. But an alternative explanation is possible: that Bezos, limitless in his ambition, grasps that the gig economy will need to adapt and humanise itself if his company is to continue its march towards global dominion. The Guardian reports research that workers in insecure jobs are twice as likely to die of Covid – precisely the sort of data point that, when aggregated, might eventually cause serious political problems for Amazon, Uber and other mega-digital platform employers.

New things technology, science, engineering

Here comes another one
As we cautiously celebrate the phased relaxation of lockdown, coronavirus variants remain the glowering Banquo’s ghost at the feast (see last month’s File on the peril they pose). The latest such mutation, first detected in India, has now arrived on these shores – 77 cases of the variant known as B.1.617 having been recorded in the UK up to 14 April. The good news is that it is still classified as a ‘variant under investigation’, rather than ‘a variant of concern’. Even better is the failure – so far – of any of the identified variants to achieve ‘vaccine escape’. All the same, Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, is quite right to emphasise that the pathogen’s evolutionary capacity to morph into new forms means that the vaccine will have to be updated and re-administered annually.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Paint it white
Fans of the great comedy show The Young Ones will recall the hippy Neil painting himself white to deflect a potential nuclear explosion. So it is hard not to feel a measure of scepticism about the ‘whitest white’ paint developed by scientists at Purdue University in Indiana – which, they claim, reflects 98 per cent of sunlight, while radiating infrared heat through the atmosphere into space. So far, though, the research does seem to check out: the paint appears to cool surfaces by 4.5°C below ambient temperature. Though the Purdue team is some way off delivering so-called ‘free air-conditioning’, their work does illustrate the point that our response to climate emergency has to be holistic: right down to exterior decor.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Matthew d’Ancona

Photographs by Getty Images/Purdue

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