This is a guest post from a contact in the United Kingdom.
So many images from recent years are jarring and upsetting: little children kept isolated in individual chalk circles on a school yard, or an elderly couple, masked, separated, clutching each other through the barrier of a plastic sheet. Some images look harmless, even decorative and attractive.
I’d had a weather-eye open, looking around the immediate vicinity at what was going on in this little corner of the labyrinth. I didn’t have to look far. As the leaves fell in the Autumn of 2021, I started to see brightly coloured symbols appear on the pavements in my neighbourhood, only a few metres from my home: hot pink diamonds, bright blue hexagons, sets of vivid footprints, all bonded to the grey tarmac at my feet.
Later, in the park, cute cartoon insects and hopscotch grids popped up along the paths. I believe that many of the same folks who would be dismayed at the sight of primary school children in virtual reality headsets would support the idea of anything that encourages children to go outdoors, to go to the park, and to play hopscotch. Who wouldn’t want to see kids playing hopscotch?
Symbols have power. The diamonds, hexagons, and cartoon critters are part of three ‘health walks’ around two of the poorest areas of Banbury, in Oxfordshire, UK (Grimsbury, on the other side of town, got green stars on its pavements). The health walks are, apparently, meant to support the local community ‘to recover from covid by encouraging more outdoor activity and improving general wellbeing in a safe environment’.
The scheme was paid for by the UK government’s Contain Outbreak Management Fund (COMF): a disconcertingly sinister-sounding title to lie directly behind smiley honeybees and goofy wriggly earthworm paintings in a kids’ playground. Between 2020 and 2022, COMF paid more than £2 billion to local authorities in England to fund their covid-19 ‘test, trace and contain’ activity, and, specifically, ‘compliance and enforcement’ measures. Payments were based partly on an area’s level of deprivation, because ‘projections’ showed that economically deprived areas had high covid infection and transmission rates (essentially “poor people spread diseases” given a 21st century update).
I am willing to look, and I have eyes to see; what I find extremely difficult is to look with compassion. The main thing I feel is raw anger. I have to search hard for the compassion within me. I start to feel a little more compassion (and more humility, too) when I remember how relatively recently it was that the branding of a charity or an NGO would fool me. Those green leaf mandala motifs and panda bear logos really work! I was suckered. I was extremely surprised when the powers-that-be announced they’d decided to stop pillaging the Earth and save her instead, but very pleased too…as switched on as I thought I was, I took it at face value, and only started to see the truth in recent years.
I am quite sure that the vast majority of the men and women unwittingly hired to build the apparatus of the panopticon believe that they are involved in something good and worthwhile and beneficial. Back in 2017, Bicester, an Oxfordshire town to the east of Banbury, got the first of three ‘blue line health walks’- basically, three circular routes of 5 kilometres each (perfect for the NHS ‘Couch to 5K’ app). The ‘health walks’ are one of the innovations in the built environment which is being trialed in Bicester as part of a public-private partnership called Healthy New Towns (HNT). During the covid lockdowns, the Bicester health walks saw a surge in use, presumably when citizens left their houses for their permitted hour of exercise. The routes are marked by a wide blue line painted on the ground.
I feel compassion when I see the photo of the council worker pushing the machine which paints the blue line along the route. The next phase included hiring a third party to develop an app and installing geolocated signage along the routes to allow users to log-on to the health route at any of the km points, allowing the app to track people’s progress between scans of QR codes. Individual users would be located either via multilateration of radio signals between cell towers (Bicester has several, which allows for a good degree of accuracy) or via GPS.
In 2018, human-powered outdoor gym equipment which can be used to charge mobile phones and with Bluetooth capability to record exertion on the equipment was installed in three locations, including in the new Bicester ‘eco town’ of Elmsbrook. The gym equipment is made by TGO (The Great Outdoor Gym Company) whose recent clients include the BBC, the United Nations, and the NHS. TGO was hired to build an outdoor gym in the grounds of the Bethlem Royal psychiatric hospital in London, with the aim of ‘helping patients manage difficult emotions and encourage smoking cessation’.
Another town in the county, Kidlington, has its own ‘health routes’ including five ‘Zoo Walks’, marked out in paw prints and the like, a nod to Kidlington being home to Oxford Zoo in the 1930s. The ‘Zoo Walks’ were funded by Sport England. Sport England, a non-governmental public body which gets three-quarters of its funding from the UK National Lottery (a ‘good cause’ that people buying a lotto ticket are supporting) hired Hopscotch Consulting on an unrelated project called Studio You, a video platform used by PE (physical education) teachers in schools.
Studio You is designed for teenage girls who have been deemed ‘less active’ (ie, who don’t engage in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a day). Hopscotch Consulting is a social impact agency and is the only specialist education consultancy on the Government Communication Services roster.
Names have power. Healthy New Towns (HNT) is a programme funded by the National Health Service (NHS) and involving a wide range of ‘partners’ from the public, private and third sector. It was launched in 2015. Ten locations were chosen across England to act as demonstrator sites, and Bicester is one of them. As part of the HNT programme, 13,000 new houses will be built in the town (on greenfield land) over the next 20 years. 6,000 of these new houses will be the North West Bicester ‘eco town’ of which Elmsbrook is the first phase, comprising nearly 400 houses.
The HNT programme uses population growth as an opportunity to test innovations in the built environment, new models of care, and ‘community activation’ and identify the impact they have on public health, and then to replicate these innovations throughout the county and the country. Or, as the then Chief Executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, put it: “As these new neighbourhoods and towns are built, we’ll kick ourselves if in ten years’ time we look back having missed the opportunity to ‘design out’ the obesogenic environment, and ‘design in’ health and wellbeing.”
Each one of the HNT developments has its own set of priorities; for example, one priority for the Whyndyke Garden Village development in Lancashire is ‘Pushing the telehealth care agenda’ (and with a direct quote from the NHS like that, who needs conspiracy theories?) The stated vision for Bicester is ‘To create a healthy community by making it easy, attractive and affordable for people of all ages to live healthy, sustainable lifestyles and to replicate the learning to elsewhere.’
Bicester’s HNT priorities are to increase activity levels and reduce the weight of adults and children, and reduce the number of people who feel lonely or socially isolated ‘in order to improve their mental wellbeing’. And they’ve got the statistics to prove it: apparently, in Bicester, 1 in 4 children age 2-10, 58% of women, and 65% of men are overweight or obese. The lack of compunction these policy-makers have about reducing people to a set of numbers based on very narrow, questionable measurements (Body Mass Index scores, etc) is palpable. Other ‘innovations’ being tested include a mental health website for teenagers and parents, and a new diabetes pathway.
As a stated HNT aim is to test ‘new digital technologies and health related applications to promote self-diagnosis, self-monitoring and self-care’ it seems likely that this new diabetes pathway will be a ‘digital stream’ of an existing face-to-face programme launched in 2016 which, through personalised diet, exercise, and lifestyle advice, targets people at high risk of type 2 diabetes. The digital version of this programme, which will be trialed in Bicester and other locations, is aimed at the same at-risk group but will involve wearable technologies that monitor levels of exercise, apps which allow users to access health coaches, online peer support groups, and the setting and monitoring of goals electronically.
The Elmsbrook development uses the ‘One Planet Living’ framework and includes what is said to be the first ‘One Planet’ school in the UK. ‘One Planet Living’ is a joint initiative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and BioRegional, a UK-based consultancy charity and social enterprise who ‘create and support alliances aimed at driving home the UN Sustainable Development Goals both in the UK and globally.’
The ‘One Planet’ logo is immediately reminiscent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) logo, and indeed BioRegional boast on their website that they were involved in the negotiation of the SDGs and ‘showed up to every UN meeting handing out leaflets with our brightly coloured One Planet Living principles’. The promotional material for Elmsbrook eco-village is replete with meadows, parks, nature reserves, bird-houses, community allotments, communal herb boxes, beehives, bug hotels, turf roofs, childrens’ play areas, outdoor gyms, footpaths, and cycle-lanes lush with trees.
Sounds great, right? Homes in Elmsbrook receive a tablet installed with a home information system called Shimmy, which displays real-time energy use and costs for electricity, heating and hot water, plus real-time bus travel updates and enabling users to make bookings at the local car club. The Shimmy also acts as a form of social media portal, communicating updates to residents on local meetings and events.
Today when I see the pink diamonds and the blue hexagons, and other little signs and symbols here and there, I have a sense that I’m seeing the very tips of the tentacles of a huge nameless entity, an indication that something much much bigger lurks under the surface, something gigantic yet hidden.
Would anything change if people knew? If people knew that the colourful symbols their children skipped along came courtesy of the Contain Outbreak Management Fund? If people knew that their desirable energy-efficient eco-home in a pleasant, leafy new village was, in reality, an experiment in the best ways to induce behaviour change and compliance, and a massive data-gathering exercise?
Or has consent been manufactured so effectively that even if people knew, they would be OK with it? Are we OK with being lab rats, as long as our cages and our mazes are warm and comfortable? The image of the labyrinth is a potent one, and my understanding of its relevance to the place we currently collectively find ourselves has deepened as I wrote this piece: so many times as I kept reading and following links to this or that organisation’s ‘partners’ website, the same names kept appearing, the same symbols, the same phrases, the same words…words with double meanings, words whose meaning has been changed; so no matter which way I turned, I always seemed to end up back at the same place.
I can’t get out, yet I can’t find my way to the dark heart of it. It’s like going round in circles…