And so it has come to this.
Last Monday, Michael Gove stood in for the self-isolating Boris Johnson at the No. 10 pandemic briefing session. The country found itself dependent on the most duplicitous, scheming Cabinet Minister to explain the current situation and to tell us what the Government – collectively the most incompetent in my lifetime – is doing to tackle the outbreak. And yet we have no choice but to – sort of – believe he is speaking the truth.
Playing Catch Up
There’s wide agreement, including in some traditional Tory supporting newspapers, that the government screwed up its handling of the crisis, at least in the first few weeks. So the UK has been playing catch up since Johnson’s U-turn on 23rd March. The lack of testing kits and ventilators are the two most glaring examples. But the food supply industry, and in particular the supermarkets, have not exactly bathed themselves in glory. The government seems to be still too ideologically inclined to believe that the private sector can do more to adapt than is actually the case.
We’re in the psychologically disturbing phase where all the key numbers, and in particular deaths, are still rising daily. It helps me personally not to over-obsess on them. I also look out for good news stories to act as some kind of reassurance. As “MD” in the latest Private Eye points out, since January 1st, 159,987 people have died in the UK, 158,759 from causes other than the coronavirus – and therefore not newsworthy. (I guess the article was written on Monday: the numbers have changed, but the broad point still stands.) It’s clearly important that we keep a sense of proportion in all this. I’m sure that’s a struggle for a lot of people, including me at times. I’m hoping that the fear factor, which affects behaviour such as panic-buying, will subside, once the numbers start to stabilise and then subside.
It’s a tragedy for the country that the Labour Party has boxed itself into a corner of irrelevance as a result of the extraordinarily extended self-indulgence – as it now feels – of a leadership contest. The result is due to be announced later today as I write. Everybody expects Keir Starmer to win. It would be great if he and other talented Labour Party leading figures were invited to join a government of national unity, at least until the crisis is over. Stranger things have already happened in the past two weeks, announced mainly from the lips of the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He’s the only Cabinet member who has emerged in this crisis for whom I have any grain of respect. He has been clear in his announcements, bold in some decision making and shown a willingness to rethink as new information emerges – or there’s a strong backlash from sections of the community: small businesses, for example.
There’s a sense in which the people and the formerly hated “experts” have pushed the government away from a disastrous policy stance up to 22nd March into something more in line with what is needed. There’s a wish in the air that somehow, sometime, we may all end up living in a kinder, fairer world when this is all over. But any further thoughts on that must wait for another time.
I think we all agree that the key to getting out of this is testing. That’s both much more testing for live coronavirus cases, starting with all frontline NHS staff, and a reliable, easy-to-use antibodies test kit to retrospectively test those who’ve had symptoms but has not yet been positively tested owing the current lack of kits. Matt Hancock has promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. We, the people, aided and abetted by the right politicians and the media, must hold his feet to the fire to deliver on this one.
Stay safe, stay well.