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There is too much news these days isn’t there?
In the old days there were times when there was hardly any – August, for example, when all the people who tell us things go on holiday and the papers are full of stories like ‘Weather happens near Hull’ or ‘Man buys wrong-sized trousers’. Now, every day we have lots of big news and every day it seems it is made worse by people. It’s as if the news is like a sprained ankle and we greet it by hitting it hard with a mallet.
Covid-19 was very bad news. It spread like a fog across the globe and killed thousands upon thousands of people. And, yet, even though we saw it coming we – politically speaking – hit it with a mallet. In the UK we were late into lockdown; our government dithered, partly because it lacked the clear-headed analysis to tell people to stay home and, partly, because its instinct was to worry about economics first and public health second. It toyed with the nonsense that is herd immunity and vaguely suggested people might want to buy handkerchiefs and carry on going to the horse racing. People died.
When lockdown did come, what followed was the sort of blithering panic that might be expected from a group of 14-year-old schoolboys caught smoking behind the bike sheds, desperately wanting the smell of smoke to go away while wondering who to blame for buying the cigarettes. There was not enough personal protective equipment for staff – who were put at risk by poor planning, disinvestment, a lack of coherent thinking and an inability to take the responsibility of government seriously. People died.
The scientific advice that has allegedly guided us throughout was ignored by the prime minister’s senior adviser, who got away with telling the country that driving with a young child in the car is the best way to test your eyes if you don’t think they are working properly. (One wonders if he might one day test to see if he is a fish by putting his head in a bucket of water for 30 minutes.) And virus testing, overseen by a health secretary who manages to make Jeremy Hunt look both interested in the job and vaguely capable of doing at least some of it, is a disaster. People are dying.
Yet, within 48 hours of reports telling us that the economy has shrunk by a fifth and will get worse, the political instinct kicks back in and people are encouraged to queue for three or four miles around Primark and ‘shop for Britain’. The clapping for carers grew quieter, the death rate reduced and, although infections continue, the numbers are lower. Some of the madness has left the clinical coalface but it leaves so much residue, exhaustion, trauma and fear doesn’t it?
My sense is that lockdown induced a lot of emotion in most of us: fear, anger, guilt, compassion. As those tumble out of us and into the light, it was always going to be interesting to see how they manifested themselves. Where do people put those emotions? Who will the anger be directed at? What do we do with fear? Will we be better for an enforced period of reflection or will we rush to be worse?
How the plan for economic recovery treats the health service will be a key litmus test. Will the UK forget the dedication, the professionalism and the clarity of purpose that a few weeks ago they stood outdoors to clap? Will those things be overlooked in name of hard-headed economics? The evidence from this government is that it will make poor decisions – given our collective experience over the last three months, I wonder how and why we tolerate that?
Mark Radcclife is author of Stranger Than Kindness. His collection of short stories Superpowers is published by Valley Press on 31 July