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Bittersweet Sunshine

Sunday 12 April 2020

Easter’s warm spell is taunting us, with buckets and spades off the menu. And, in spite of a tantalising hint that a vaccine really could be on its way, the government’s no clearer when it’ll resume normal service. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, exit strategy options are polarised. Heard the one about the myth of the invisible ships? It’s said when Captain Cook’s stonking great square rigger showed up off the coast of Oz in 1770, local fishermen in their little canoes just blanked it. Maybe they had better things to do, like catching the next meal. Or maybe they were playing ostrich. If it’s that big and that scary, just bury your head. In fairness, the British government can hardly be accused of that. Yet its head has, perforce, been invisible of late. Naturally, everyone wishes Boris Johnson well after what was clearly a nasty dose of Covid-19. But while he’s been holed up in hospital, the rest of us have had to glean what we can from supporting cast. A succession of faces almost entirely unknown outside Westminster until very recently. And as the daily death toll remains horrifyingly high, the acting PM Dominic Raab is hedging his bets. Acting, however, being the key word. Apparently he does have the theoretical power to start a war if he wants, but doesn’t have the right to hire or fire colleagues – or make major decisions – without their say-so. Little wonder they’re floundering. Next to the canoe-sized problems they’d normally be dealing with, coronavirus really is a 370-ton whopper. To recap on the conundrum, the stark choice remains between mass isolation or herd immunity. That’s to say try and hold back the spread, or let people develop immunity by catching it. A top scientific adviser at the Home Office reprised an earlier official estimate this week – that at some point eight out of ten of us would actually get the disease. But where there’s life there’s hope. While there are horrible stories of little children dying from it, pensioner Keith Watson has recovered. And he’s a hundred-and-one years old. However, the herd immunity idea’s been sidelined of late by the isolation approach. Combined, in time, with mass testing. Problem being that even if the government’s highly ambitious target of a hundred thousand of them are carried out every day it’d still take getting on for two years to check everybody. No surprise then that ministers have been putting off announcements of what their exit strategy actually is. Some of them, doubtless, feeling kinship with the Dickens character Wilkins Micawber – ‘something will turn up’. And that something could just be the vaccine that British scientists are going to start trying out on humans within the next fortnight. Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, has told The Times she’s ‘80 per cent confident’ it’ll work. If so, the government has indicated it’d stump up for the manufacture of millions of doses. Meaning – with a lot of luck and a following wind – mass vaccinations could start as soon as this September. Fingers crossed. Certainly a stark contrast to the approach from Donald Trump, who with his customary felicity has decided maybe it’s time to cut funding to the World Health Organisation. Calls to mind the sainted Mandy Rice-Davies’ timeless quote ‘well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ Mercifully, those really in the driving seat just now are not politicians, but people who actually know what they’re doing. Not that that necessarily always applies to PC Plod. The minister responsible for law and order, Home Secretary Priti Patel, has been confined to the naughty step of late following accusations she’s given to bullying her staff. But she popped up this week anyway to remind police officers tasked with enforcing the lockdown not to, er, bully people. This in response to suggestions they might set up road blocks, or rummage through folk’s shopping trolleys to make sure they’re only buying essential items. Of course they’ve got to discourage people from heading en masse to normally scantily populated beauty spots, but driving around on our tod isn’t going to kill anyone. Likewise buying a couple of extra pints to relieve the tedium. And, with all the evidence pointing to the long rather than the short haul, at some point common sense will have to creep in. The urgency’s underlined by a Mori poll out last week showing a significant minority of people are already finding it ‘extremely difficult’ to cope. A figure, the survey suggests, that could rise to almost a third of the population within the next month. No great surprise, given the huge rise in benefit claims – and the distressing spike recorded in the incidence of domestic violence. Christmas and family holidays can be bad enough, but at least they have an end in sight. Against that, it’s worth recalling a song covered by Bing Crosby in the dark days of World War Two – ‘Accentuate the positive .. latch on to the affirmative’. And the pollsters did uncover a fair few plus points. Nine out of ten people do support the lockdown, which has inspired a wave of community spirit. A clear majority of people said they’d offered to help a neighbour. Then there’s the stoicism kicking in – with getting on for half the adults surveyed accepting the lockdown might last at least another six months. Keeping calm and carrying on? Economists are agreed the economic shock will be worse than the 2008 banking crash. But for now most of us have at least time to clock who and where we are. Without the roar of traffic, birdsong is more clearly audible. And, while struggling to remember what day of the week it is, we have time to spot how busy our feathered friends are. They’re fluttering around with nest-building materials in their beaks. And, with spring in the air, canoodling like crazy. As Cole Porter pointed out in his seasonal song, even educated fleas do it. And it seems plenty of humans are taking the hint. One Swedish luxury sex toy brand says sales are up forty percent. Anne Summers aren’t all that far behind, and online pharmacy UK Meds has seen sales rocket both in Viagra and the morning after pill. Lest we forget, the term baby boomer sprung from an abnormally high birth rate fuelled by the chaps’ return from active service in 1945. Number crunchers and historians will be watching out when this is finally behind us. Ah, but when will that be? Her Majesty the Queen’s rare address to the nation last week got an amazing number of people thinking. Including in France, where the audience topped two-and-a-quarter million, a record for a British royal broadcast. Maybe it was down to the words she chose. As well as referencing a speech she’d made as a kid1940, she echoed Vera Lynn’s classic wartime song. ‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through, just like you always do, ’til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.’ Point taken. No matter how dark the tunnel, there is always light at the end of it.

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter. Click the banner to share on Facebook

© 2019 The MALESTROM.

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