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Present Imperfect – Malestrom Sunday 29 March 2020

Fear stalks the land. And uncertainty. Little wonder, faced with what one minister describes as the worst health emergency since the Spanish Flu pandemic – that claimed more lives than the First World War. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer writes, the crisis has also brought out some of the finest aspects of human nature. ‘Love is strong as death. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Seventy-two-year-old Italian priest Don Guiseppe Berardelli went one step further than those biblical words this week. Having contracted coronavirus, he donated his respirator to a younger patient he didn’t even know. And paid with his life. That story movingly fits to the narrative of well over half a million Brits exposing themselves to danger by joining the growing army of volunteers prepared to help the NHS. Little wonder so many people stepped onto their doorsteps at a chosen moment this week to applaud health workers for their valiant efforts. Of course, many others are emitting cries of anguish at the very real threat of running out of money – and food to feed their families. And of course some people are behaving foolishly and callously. Either trying to sidestep the pandemic, or worse. Sports Direct boss has issued a public apology after finally bowing to pressure to close his stores. But not before facing accusations that he whacked up prices on stuff people might use to keep fit at home. And the chancellor has also come in for stick for being slow on the uptake in regard to the dire financial straits suddenly facing the self-employed. He got there in the end, announcing they’ll be able to claim grants of up to two-and-a-half grand a month for the time being. It looks like an awful lot of them will still slip through the net, but herein lies the problem, from the Whitehall perspective. The government consists of the PM and a couple of dozen cabinet ministers. And, er, that’s it. Now, as well as the health secretary – you’d couldn’t make it up – even Bojo’s tested positive for the disease. Though he’ll struggle on, thanks to the wonders of digital communication. If he does have to bow out, at least for a while, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is slated to take his place. And slated he often is too, in another sense of the word. Approve or otherwise of Boris Johnson’s policies and character, at least he’s a cheery sort of chap and good at jollying up others. Mr Raab, by contrast, is regarded by his detractors as a born-again Vlad the Impaler, only without the charm. Could be worse, mind. There’s an extraordinary story in the American magazine Newsweek claiming Trump’s lot have issued secret orders for a military takeover if the civvies are incapacitated. Meanwhile our leaders, faced with the unprecedented task of micromanaging the lives of getting on for sixty-eight million people, are a tad outnumbered. Parliament is not the government. The six-hundred-and-fifty MP’s are only there to grumble at it. Or suck up to it. Or even, in its lucid moments, make helpful suggestions about making new laws better. Legislation generally takes months or years to dream up. Getting it onto the statute book is a painstaking process normally spanning weeks or months. Much of it is no more than tweaks to regulations we’re already supposed to abide by anyway. Infinitely short of what we’re looking at now. A total, if temporary, revamp of our entire system. Barely three months after voters told Jeremy Corbyn that socialism sucks, the command economy is the new cool. And, knackered though he must surely be, the new chancellor’s having a rather good war. At least in terms of personal rating, which this week hit sixty per cent, according to a YouGov survey for The Times. This made him the most popular politician in a decade. Indeed, some commentators are wryly calling Mr Sunak ‘Dishy Rishi’. Bojo’s mojo’s also soared, according to the polls. Though it’s worth noting that the same applies to Donald Trump, in spite of the serial incompetence that he laughingly calls his ‘policies’. However, it’s worth dwelling on the mechanism of UK government a little longer. Normal service is suspended, no longer emanating from Number Ten. Instead it’s being conducted from just up the road, in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. This is the emergency response co-ordination centre, trading under the acronym COBRA and doing its best right now not to hiss or spit too scarily. Indeed, there are comforting fragments emerging, from there and elsewhere. Although fatalities are ratcheting up alarmingly – and heartrendingly for their loved ones – the death toll could end up being well under twenty thousand, mostly people who would have died later this year anyway. This figure comes from the Imperial College London scientist whose research precipitated tougher government measures last week. Bittersweet though the nugget is, it does give perspective to the picture. Also, according to The Times, a coronavirus test that can give a yay or nay in a couple of hours or so has been developed by a German manufacturer. Trials suggest it can detect at least ninety-five per cent of Covid-19 cases. In addition, the same paper suggests, a home finger-prick test for the virus could shortly be on offer and delivered by Amazon, if checks this week show that it works. Be good if it does, as it means if people can see they’ve had it and are now immune they could go back to work. And there’s even talk of suspending the normal rules of engagement in trialling new vaccines – thus potentially getting one available months earlier than expected. Desperate times, desperate measures? Custom has it dangerous stuff is extensively administered to animals before it’s allowed anywhere near humans. But by-passing that bit would obviously speed up the process hugely. Of course, people would have to volunteer, that’s to say put their lives on the line. All things are possible, however, when you consider all those individual acts of heroism that have already been so vividly on display in some quarters. And it’s not just the frontline folk, in the NHS and elsewhere. It’s also the unsung heroes. People who collect the rubbish, tube drivers, delivery services, supermarket staff. They’re far from well paid. In fact, let’s be honest, they’re not as highly valued as they deserve either. But right now they’re key workers. Without them the rest of us would be completely stuffed. Worth remembering, that. At some point this surreal nightmare will be over. The overwhelming majority of us will survive, and much of life will return to its accustomed ways. We can but hope, however, that the new normal might, in some areas, be better for the experience. The American writer Donna Ashworth has penned a neat little poem that encapsulates the possibility. Here are the closing lines. ‘History will remember when the virus left And the houses opened And the people came out And hugged and kissed And started again Kinder than before.’ 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


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