Sunday, 26th December, 2021

[Day 650]

Today being Boxing Day makes tomorrow Bank Holiday Monday, I suppose, as the Bank Holiday gets transferred from a Sunday (i.e. today) until the following day. So this morning, I decided to pop down early for our Sunday newspapers on my own so that would liberate a bit of time later on in the day. The weather has been incredibly wet for the last few days but at least the rain had eased off for my walk down into town today and it seemed as though the rain would hold off for the rest of the morning. Meg and I walked down and had coffee on our ‘normal bench’ and thought we would not bump into any of our regulars but no sooner had we consumed our coffee then our University of Birmingham friend turned up with a couple of other mutual friends that we had not seen for a couple of weeks. So it was good to bump into friends and we exchanged news about the kind of Christmas Day we had had. To some extent, we were not unhappy to get Christmas Day itself over and done and now we were ready for a more relaxing time on Boxing Day. When we got to the park, I substituted my normal leather Australian style hat for a Santa hat. The Australian hats are occasionally known as ‘Bush’ hats and sometimes as ‘Cowboy’ hats but I have learnt, to my cost, not to leave them behind in a railway carriage or a pub because they never, ever get handed in as lost but are claimed under the principle of ‘Finders-Keepers, Losers-Weepers). After we had our chat the drizzle started to come down so we started to make for home. As we had plenty of food and drink back in the house, we invited our University of Birmingham friend back into the house where we had a quick drink followed by an instant Boxing-day style meal. We had got plenty of cooked vegetables left over from yesterday so we cut ourselves some slices of ham and quickly microwaved up the vegetables so we had a meal in an instant. Whilst we were at it, we decided to have a go at the Christmas pudding that we had in stock and was far too much just for the two of us. So we had some enjoyable food and drink and even more enjoyable conversation as we recounted some of our university experiences. We expressed to each other the feelings that we had of quiet satisfaction that we were not part of present day employment conditions in the higher education sector. This is so highly casualised these days and the students having to pay up to £9,000 a year (and take out loans to cover the costs of maintenance) and are starting to express their discontent. Some university staff have taken strike action in recent months as plans are in place to fund the Universities pension schemes with cuts to benefits. The employers claim the cuts will amount to something between 10%-18% whilst the college unions claim that the cuts amount to 35%. I cannot start to arbitrate between these conflicting estimates but it does seem that conditions have changed considerably since I was in employment in a university. For decades we contributed about 7% of our salary towards our final pensions and the employers contributed a more than equal amount. Trying to understand why and how the deficit has arisen is contentious. However, from what I can glean, it appears that deficits in defined-benefit pension schemes have been made worse by central bank action to deal with the coronavirus. By pushing down interest rates in the hope of stimulating an economic recovery, they have made long-term pension promises much more expensive. Retired workers are also living longer, adding to the increase in expected future costs.

The COVID situation is currently exposing divisions in the approach taken to the Omicron variant of the COVID virus in the various constituent nations of the UK (although it doesn’t feel very united) The Celtic fringes of Wales, Scotland Northern Ireland are generally re-imposing conditions on meetings of large numbers of people and nightclubs are generally being closed – but not in England. It appears that England is still taking a more ‘libertarian’ approach with looser restrictions on the use of face-masks and the like than other countries. However the situation is being kept ‘under review’ and it is possible that England might eventually come into line with all of our immediate neighbours. Also, there is a firm commitment that schools will reopen as usual in about a week’s time and I wonder what the effects of this are going to be. I suspect that we may see the worst of the Omicron variant towards the middle of January and whilst government policy is to give a booster dose to as many as possible, it may be that the protection ‘enjoyed’ by many members of the population may be fast waning. So some societies (like Israel) are already considering a fourth vaccination (a second booster dose) and it could be that this will become necessary in the UK as well if the infection rate soars.