Janet Hemingway Interview: ‘We’re Going To Have To Live With Covid Forever’

Professor Janet Hemingway laughs a lot. In fact, I can see that she’s laughing before I can hear her through the Microsoft Teams meeting that’s been set up for us to chat. As I fumble for an elusive “unmute” button I can see Prof Hemingway chuckling away, clad in a Princeton University hoodie and hands-free headset, from her home in the Cheshire countryside. Since March 2020, she now spends the majority of her time working from home.

“We used to have to work quite hard to persuade people that infectious diseases were important,” she muses, “but we kind of don’t need to work quite so hard now.”

It has, she concedes, been “fairy crazy”. Hemingway left her role as director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) — she describes it as one of the jewels in the crown of Liverpool — in 2018 with the intention to “have fun with the science” for the remainder of her career.

Within a year she was putting together a consortium of NHS and academic partners with the private sector, after the government advertised a programme inviting bids for research projects. Her idea, presciently, was for a consortium that could speed up the delivery of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. She won the bid in March 2020. The Infection Innovation Consortium (iiCON) — a kind of Q branch for infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and emerging pandemics — was created.

“It struck me that if I got all of those organisations working together, we could be much greater than the sum of our parts to the benefit not only of the city, but to humanity basically,” she says. “I thought if I can pull that consortium together from the North West, I think we’ve got something that could really be world beating there.”

Janet Hemingway. Photo: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

When the consortium started, everyone knew Covid-19 was “coming big time,” and the new organisation pivoted its energies towards the novel disease. Later in 2020 they became involved in the trials for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as helping in the development of the lateral flow and PCR tests.
iiCon is now working on new Covid treatments, which she says the public will become more familiar with over the course of the year: mouthwashes, surface cleaners and devices to monitor Covid in wastewater from virus hotspots are three examples she mentions.

“I went from a standing start of thinking ‘yeah, I’ll do a little bit of science, rather than run an organisation’ to, by September of this year, having a portfolio of activities that was in excess of £180m, and delivery of 2.5bn units of different products to consumers and patients.”

She pauses, then laughs. “So I’ve had a quiet year.”

Hemingway is an early riser (she gets up at 5.30 every morning to muck out horses, feed the cats and walk the dogs) and that’s just as well given her workload. She still works at the LSTM alongside her role as founding Director of iiCON; she’s a senior technical advisor on Neglected Tropical Diseases for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and she also founded the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.

She would like the city region to be recognised as a centre of excellence for infection research and development, and iiCon has attracted about £3bn worth of investment to the region by 2030. “It means lots of jobs, but I also wanted those to be jobs that people in the city felt that they could apply for and career aspirations that the kids wanted to go for as well,” she says.

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Photo by Rodhullandemu, released on the Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Much of the work she coordinates has an impact across the country and the world, but she also thinks there could be local benefits. “I think that it should be good for the local population, because we do have a population where the health isn’t as great as it might be,” she says. “You’ve got various issues there, including some that link with infectious diseases. And so we’re obviously working with the local NHS local populations to try and improve local health.”

I put it to Hemingway that Liverpool’s relatively low take-up of Covid vaccinations must be frustrating, given the city’s importance in tackling infectious diseases. “Liverpool has got underlying issues with poverty. It’s got underlying issues with different ethnic groups that tend to sit in their own little bubbles, if you like. And within those groups they tend to access their health care less effectively than other groups do.”

She seems to be the perfect person to ask the question that many of us have in the back of our minds right now: when is this pandemic going to end? “We’re going to have to live with Covid forever; this is never ever going to go out of the human population.”

The objective is to get the disease down to the point where it is no worse than the standard flu. “And the only way you will do that is either lots and lots of people have to get it and die from it, which is not what we want to do, or we put something in place that actually reduces the amount of transmission — that’s clearly the vaccines.”

She thinks the government’s response to the pandemic “could have been better” and has harsher words for some specific decisions (stopping air travel from South Africa when it was already clear that the variant was already within the country was “crude stupidity”). “If we’d have been a little bit more ready, before this one, we maybe could have stopped it becoming a global pandemic. And so we don’t want another one in my lifetime, certainly, but I would like not to have another one in anybody else’s lifetime. That’s a big ask, but I think if we’re really clever about the way that we put different things in place, both surveying what’s going on, and then responding very quickly. We can do that.”

And we can do it on Merseyside. “By building up a big area of expertise, we can tackle those infectious diseases that are there, year in year out, but we can also respond very quickly to anything new that might suddenly come about, and do it more effectively than we have done with Covid.”

Dr Jon Hague of Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region.

Something people who have worked with Hemingway pinpoint in her character is her grasp of detail and an ability not just to communicate clearly, but get others invested in what she has to say. Doctor Jon Hague, speaking in his role as Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region (Hague is also a Vice President at Unilever), told me about working with Hemingway. “She’s tough, right? She’s absolutely a tour de force. When she does need to stand firm and draw the line and say, no, she’ll fight tooth and nail. She digs in when she needs to and she gets a lot of respect for that.”

He says Hemingway is a rare beast in science. “She’s one of these people who is extremely good at navigating the politics of universities and institutions and governments,” he says. “But he’s also an absolutely brilliant scientist. People in science tend to be one or the other; Janet brings both of them together.”

Hague has worked with Hemingway on bringing iiCon to fruition and has experienced her “brutal efficiency”. “She’s really kind to people but like any good operator she’ll get it all lined up before the meetings. She’s like a great chess player, she’s got all the moves made. And it’s all sorted out when you go into the meeting: checkmate!”

It’s perhaps Hemingway’s steeliness that has seen her referred to as “that damn woman” by opponents — a reminder of the gender imbalance in the higher echelons of science. iiCon’s team may be all-female (“serendipitously”, says Hemingway), but the fact is while more women than men enter science, it drops off alarmingly beyond postdoctoral level. “If you look at the professorial level, I think we’re 10% female and 90% male,” she says.

Either way, the iiCon team is getting noticed. “The government is coming in February to see what’s working in Liverpool because they can see it happening with what we’re doing and how quickly it’s grown and how quickly it’s had an impact. And so they can see that there’s some fairy dust in there.”

iiCon and the LSTM are just two, relatively small, elements in the sprawling, seemingly ever-developing Knowledge Quarter that houses the University of Liverpool and Royal Liverpool University Hospital. Hemingway says the critical mass and geographical closeness has benefited Liverpool enormously. “Alongside the massive numbers of students to the city, which helps drive the economy, you’ve got the research activities tying in with the health systems, the engineering companies, the people in the maritime areas.”

She cites the rollout of 5G networks in Liverpool as pioneering (along with her role in promoting vaccines and her work with the Bill Gates Foundation, she’s a conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare) but says the city needs to carry on innovating for its own good.

“That way, we suck in inward investment,” she says, “we suck in the sort of people who are interested in these industries, so we create better jobs for people. And if you’ve got good urban employment, everything else tends to flow through. Better jobs mean better housing and better health. And so lots and lots of the other problems that you see in cities that are deprived start to go away, because you’ve got an economy that is booming.”

It’s obvious from our conversation that Hemingway is committed to the city. “Normally I’d spend 10-12 years somewhere and then move on; I’ve now been here more than 20 years, and I haven’t yet moved on, I’m not going to.” She gets two or three job offers a month from all around the world. “And I can happily say ‘No, not interested’. Because I’m well anchored here.”

We’re wrapping up our talk, early on a day shortly before Christmas. What else has she got on after this? Hemingway lists a meeting with iiCon colleagues, a call with the Northern Health Sciences Alliance, catching up with a Japanese company to discuss bed nets for malaria control and some paperwork to finish off for a quarterly report. Plus the dogs and horses need exercising.

Not much, then. “No. I always sit twiddling my thumbs,” she says laughing.

• Original written for Liverpool Post. Click here to read the original article: ‘We’re going to have to live with Covid forever’

Meet the publican of one of Liverpool’s best pubs

Rita Smith is not having a good day. It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday in late November and the 83-year-old landlady of Peter Kavanagh’s can’t find anyone to do the Saturday afternoon shift.

“I have never been so stressed since I’ve opened this pub,” she admits, as her phone springs into life again.

Conversations unfold around me. The ailments that affect middle-aged men is a frequent topic. A man at the bar asks what spiced rum is actually spiced with, an enthusiastic discussion follows; one of the regulars at the bar explains how people actually ate pig heads in the olden days to another appalled local.

Rita Smith

There’s a bike leant against a jukebox. Rita isn’t having that. The owner of the bike is politely but firmly told where it has to go. Another young lad has his feet up on a stool. Rita wanders over and while the conversation is inaudible, the gist is unmistakable. No one messes with Rita. She might be the only person in some of the regulars’ lives who can tell them what to do, without a murmur of complaint. “The regulars are great,” Rita laughs. “But if they piss me off they’ll know about it.”

At that moment it becomes apparent The Guinness Gang — frequenters of the front snug — want the fire on. Rita’s not keen. “It’s five degrees outside,” the barman points out. “They’re inside,” she protests, her voice rising in incredulity.

It’s almost 30 years since Rita took the pub on (on 9th March 1992 — “that’s one date I’ll never fucking forget!”). Since then she’s become the formidable, ‘potty-mouthed’ matriarch of the pub — a firm favourite of real ale drinkers (it was Liverpool CAMRA Pub of the Year 2019), the city’s bohemian community and Toxtethians. Her name and character now adorn the pub, as Peter Kavanagh’s does.

Serving beer since 1854, the pub is now named after the well-known Peter Kavanagh who served as landlord from 1897 to 1950. The titular Kavanagh (not simply a publican, but an inventor and benefactor too) oversaw the development of the pub visitors know today: trinkets and curios — a crocodile skin being one of the more outlandish examples — cover the walls and ceiling. Old radiograms jostle with light bulbs, suspended from the ceiling.

The two snugs are adorned with murals from Dickens and Hogarth, rendered by Scottish artist Eric Robertson, reputedly as payment-in-kind for an unpaid bar bill. Historic England, hardly known for their effusiveness, describe the pub as a “tour-de- force of eccentricity and quirkiness that references both gentlemen’s clubs and ships’ cabins… [the] unique legacy of one man’s vision, capturing the eccentricities, inventiveness and character of Peter Kavanagh”. In its own way, Peter Kavanagh’s functions as a museum of Liverpool.

Drinkers in the pub

Rita first drank in PK’s in the late ‘50s (then a single frontage, before the neighbouring houses were purchased and knocked through); she was 18 and had joined the army to escape her warring parents. The young Rita would go to the Rialto (later destroyed in the 1981 protests) for the dance, then pop over to the pub for drinks during the intervals.

“I’d always make sure I was wearing my army uniform so I didn’t have to buy a drink!” she says. Rita sighs — and then chuckles — when she’s asked about her feelings on running Peter Kavanagh’s. “It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s like when you’re a nun and you go into a convent; it’s a vocation. The pub is your life — you don’t run it, it runs you.”

Rita says when she recoups the money she spent buying the lease all those years ago (from Jake Abraham, star of Lock, Stock…, Red Dwarf and Liverpool’s stages) she’ll be off. But listening to her discussing her first impressions, it’s hard to imagine her leaving PK’s. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time Rita has pulled the rug out from under everyone.

“I was working three jobs to pay for our house on Hope Street and I thought ‘what’s the point?’” she recalls, thinking back to when she bought the lease. “I was just rattling around in a bloody big house on my own. So I put it on the market. Even on the day I was moving, I didn’t know where I was moving to. I ended up living with two gay lads who were friends, around the corner from here. And then this came up…

“I wanted something — I didn’t know what it was,” recalls Rita. “I just knew I wanted something. A challenge. A goal. We came and had a look and I just got this feeling — it was meant to be. I told my daughter and she said ‘you haven’t, have you? You’re off your head!’”

So why does she do it?

“I’m weird! I’ve just got this drive to do things. Even at my age I look at places and wonder if I could take them on. I could have taken on another pub a few years ago. Can you imagine?”

It would be foolish to bet against Rita pulling it off, but she seems to be so embedded in PK’s it is hard to imagine her behind the bar anywhere else. And what would the regulars make of it? Rita isn’t simply the licensee here: she’s a problem-solver, a confessor, a policeman…

Rita picks up the thread: “…mother, psychologist! A licensee is there for the people, not for the beer.”

That much is clear from the way people greet Rita, the bar staff and one another. PK’s is a pub where people chat to one another; a pub where the regulars will still make sure you get home safe.

“We have a beautiful mix of people,” says Rita. “Your creed, your colour, your gender are all immaterial when you come through that door. There are only two kinds of people: good people and bad people — the good people can stay.

“There are people who don’t want to go to town but they can still go to the pub and enjoy themselves — that’s what this is all about. I just stand and watch, just see the joy on their faces when they’re enjoying themselves. That’s what I love about the pub.”

Rita puts her head in her hands, laughs and shakes her head in disbelief when recalling some of the more unlikely moments in the pub over the years. The time she came downstairs (Rita lives upstairs) to find a morris dance underway in the pub. Or the spoof wedding they held, where Rita’s barmaid and a regular got married. The bride wore a kimono; the groom suspenders. They had salmon paste butties and a Victoria Sponge for the wedding breakfast.

“When it came to everyone asking whether anyone had any objection the whole pub stood up and said ‘we do!’”

Then there was the time a pair of mannequins became regulars.

“It would get to the point where someone would come in pissed and start talking to them — ‘you alright there mate, you don’t say much do you?’ We had to find a fiancé for him, so we found a female dummy, dressed her up and put them together. You’d come down and she’d have her hand in his flies. Oh, we’d laugh!”

She gestures around the mostly full pub, where small groups and couples are drinking quietly.

“It can be like this and then someone’s on the piano — half an hour later everyone is gathered around singing!”

Any famous drinkers here? “I’ve had Tintin.” Tintin? “Quentin Tarantino. I said ‘I don’t mean to offend you but I don’t like your movies, they’re not very nice’. He didn’t say an awful lot,” she giggles. She leans forward conspiratorially. “He’s not that big, you know. Only a bit bigger than me.”

She may have been landlady here for almost 30 years, but apart from being billeted to Moreton, Blackpool and Kent during the war, Rita lived in the Georgian Quarter all her life. She has memories of hiding under a table in the cellar of a house in Roscoe Lane during an air raid, her docker grandfather shucking oysters to feed the hungry, infant Rita as bombs fell outside.

She’s not blind to the hardships of the past, but she paints a nostalgic picture of the area stretching back decades. “In the ’60s there were all sorts around here: knocking shops, shebeens, nightclubs,” she says. “The Quarter on Faulkner Street was a chippie, we used to hang around and see if we could get some crispy bits — or the sweet shop where we could get a loosey for tuppence ha’penny that would be shared out between four or five of us.”

She explains that people didn’t have a lot back then, but that they shared a lot and cared for each other.

“When I was growing up I’d take cakes over the road to a different family,” she says. “If someone died on the streets my Mum would take the sheets over and wash the body. It’s what you did, that’s what life was about. If someone had less than you, you’d give it to them.”

Rita may not be a fan of “Tintin,” but she loves old films. Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy. She would buy firewood from St John’s Market to sell around the Georgian Quarter, hoping to scrape together enough money to get into the Hope Hall Cinema, which stood on the site of the Everyman Theatre.

“I was an ice-cream girl in the Tatler News Theatre (the first news and cartoon cinema in the city, situated on Church Street in the building that now houses Clarks), but the Liverpool News Theatre was the posh one. You could watch cartoons on repeat all day…”

Rita can paint the sort of picture of the city that evokes an image frequently circulated on social media: a shot of Lime Street from 1961, showing it looking impossibly glamorous.

“In the wintertime, when we lived off Hope Place and the first snow would fall I’d be lying in bed with my Mum. She’d ask if I was awake and say: ‘We’ve had snow — do you fancy a walk and a hot pie?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, we could take the dog for a walk’. This would be 2 o’clock in the morning.

“We’d walk down Bold Street and look in the windows for the next day’s displays, round the back of the old St John’s Market to Lime Street, where we’d get two meat pies — you could get pies any time of the night there — and we’d walk back up Renshaw Street and eat them back home.

“So many memories and I often lie in bed and think about it,” she says, a little wistfully. “It would be nice to have those days back, but you can only go forwards.”

It’s a brief, lovely moment of reverie in the busy pub, with the sky beginning to bruise and cold winter wind snapping against the windows.

But it doesn’t last — the life of a publican is never calm for long. One of the Guinness Gang comes over to ask about the fire in the Dickens room again. Rita throws up her hands in exasperation and curses.

“See what I mean!”

• Originally written for Liverpool Post. Click here for the original: Meet the publican of one of Liverpool’s best pubs