It will soon be six months since the world was first alerted to Coronavirus. In the UK we are pushing into our tenth week of lockdown. Businesses are going bust and jobs are being lost on a “major recession scale”. The plutocrats on the Sunday Times Rich list are reported to have lost “billions”.
Tens of thousands have lost their lives. Some sections of society have been hit harder than others. Covid19 is “racist, fattist, and sexist”, as the minister James Bethell told the House of Lords this week. Relatively low-paid and low-skilled workers in regular contact with the public, including bus drivers and ancillary health staff, have also been cruelly exposed to infection. Above all, we now know for certain that the disease is ageist.
Even though a senior TV news colleague dismissed it as “poverty porn for the chattering classes”, there was some truth in the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis’ early declaration that this “is not the great leveller”. Her pointed commentary certainly does not justify the government in taking offence and imposing a boycott by ministers of the BBC2 flagship throughout the lockdown.
If they had been willing to engage in dialogue on the programme those ministers could have argued that Maitlis’ sermon missed the essence of what everyone is going through. We really are all in this together. All of our lives have been paused and turned upside down. We all know people who have fallen victim to the virus and we all wish it would go away in the hope that things can get back to somewhere near normal.
As the scientists keep reminding us this is a new disease and there is a lot we don’t know about it. Most of us want to watch and learn through experience how to deal with the virus and the problems it creates.
Unfortunately, a vociferous and growing minority want to stop thinking and revert to the sterile trench warfare which marred the Brexit debate and before that the Scottish independence referendum. This partisan approach is even more sterile now because this biological phenomenon can never be reduced sensibly to a Yes-No political argument.
This week, in Scotland, the Cybernat hate squad online targeted Sarah Smith, the BBC’s Scotland Editor and daughter of the Labour Party leader John Smith who died in 1994. Smith’s “crime” was to say during an unscripted two-way on the Ten O’Clock News that Nicola Sturgeon “enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules”. An unfortunate choice of verb but there was clearly no malice in the point she was trying to make.
That didn’t stop the critics piling in, complete with screaming headlines in the pro-SNP newspaper The National and suggestions on social media that Sarah Smith should resign, be sacked or worse. Nicola Sturgeon took the opportunity to tweet “Never in my entire political career have I ‘enjoyed’ anything less than this. My heart breaks every day…” Smith apologised “I should have said she was “embracing” the opportunity to set a separate policy for Scotland.”
I got a milder taste of the same lash when I summarised two English columnists as suggesting Sturgeon was “getting away with murder” during a discussion of the newspapers. Again, it was an unfortunate idiom but it is a malign distortion to suggest I was implying anything literally.
My trolls generally find something else to be vicious about. Any reporting of facts or questioning inconvenient to the government, is immediately seized upon as proof of partisanship.
Some things are almost impossible to report if they don’t fit with most of an audience’s preconceptions. I am reminded of the many trips I have made accompanying various prime ministers on visits to British troops in war zones. The leader invariably thanks the troops for putting themselves at risk in difficult conditions away from their families. That’s how we civilians see it. With equal predictability that serving troops say “but that’s why we joined up” in private chats. We seldom report that.
But Coronavirus does not fall into this category. We are all wondering and discussion should be helpful. Yet in this crisis the thought police are mobilised ready to rule on what can and cannot be said. Donald Trump is their commander-in-chief. The President’s chief infectious disease advisor, Dr Anthony Fauci, gave evidence to Congress about the risks of re-opening schools soon. The President responded “it’s not an acceptable answer”.
The UK government has also tried to pick and choose the facts. It dropped the graph showing international comparisons of death rates from its daily briefings. No country, including the UK, produces perfect statistics. But no-one has suggested credibly that any of this data is inaccurate by an order of magnitude. By avoiding comparison, the government is depriving the general public of useful information about this country’s response to the virus. The UK still has the highest death toll in Europe.
Nobody rational doubts that the NHS and its political masters are doing their best. But it should not be “unacceptable” nor should it prompt an ad hominem attack to ask whether mistakes have been made.
This week some ministers outside the Cabinet’s inner core made modest concessions in interviews with my Sky News colleague Kay Burley. The Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, who is a PhD in Chemistry, noted that scientific advice and actions taken consequent on it, may have been “wrong”. The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland confirmed that the NHS had been prioritised over care homes in the early stages of the British outbreak.
Both these outbursts of frankness have been rebutted by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary who still insist, in defiance of the evidence and events, that care homes were fully protected from early on.
In spite of the tragic consequences the UK is not the only country which failed to respond to the acute danger to the elderly. I strongly suspect that a UK government led by Labour, would have also opted “to protect the NHS” as a priority – unnecessarily as it turned out. Italy, the US and France all responded similarly.
President Macron apologised for letting down France’s older generation. But British Prime Ministers are reluctant to admit their own mistakes. David Cameron refuses to admit that he mishandled the Brexit referendum, in spite of losing it. Tony Blair says he would join the Iraq invasion again.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the original decision, their refusal to apply hindsight is debilitating for the nation. A frank admission might bring forgiveness and unify the country. Defensive defiance merely prolongs the argument and encourages the spiteful to target anyone who does not agree with them.
Worse, it undermines trust in the government’s subsequent claims and proposals. That dire consequence should be “unacceptable” for any government which is committed to serving its people.
The mainstream media will go on asking questions and providing analysis. A considered response rather than an imputation of bad faith on our part, or in some cases a boycott, would be welcome.