Shortly before the first lockdown began last March, Louise Casey flew back to Britain from Australia, where she’d been working as an adviser on homelessness. She doesn’t, she says, travel well. But when she landed, there seemed to be no possibility of giving in to jet lag. Though she’d been away for only 10 days, the change in London was palpable. At the airport, her taxi driver told her that half of his colleagues had just been laid off; he was surviving on two fares a day. Later that afternoon, she dragged herself to the supermarket. It was, she remembers, chaotic. Outside, she looked in the bins where food bank donations can be left. They were almost empty. When she asked a staff member about this, the woman could only gesture at the battalions of half-crazed shoppers, their trolleys full to overflowing. Seemingly, its customers were too intent on stocking their own cupboards to worry about anyone else.
In this situation, most of us would have gone home to bed, and everything would have looked better in the morning. Casey, however, is not most of us. I’m not sure when we first began referring to those overseeing particular areas of government policy as “tsars”, but if there is such a thing as the tsar of tsars, she may well be it. Under Tony Blair, she ran the Rough Sleepers Un
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