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Reasons to be cheerful

Sunday 22 March, 2020


A week used to be a long time in politics. Just now five minutes looks like a stretch. Which is why a regular column like this doesn’t stand a chance. So our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer offers, by way of alternative narrative, a few reasons to be cheerful. ‘In the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.’ That line, from the French poet, playwright and diplomat Paul Claudel, was uttered as the world was struggling to stave off the threat of World War Two. The effort was fruitless, as we know. But his point’s still valid. That being miserable won’t do much for the serotonin flow, which science suggests is a great booster of the immune system. Of course, as life-as-we-know-it gets put on hold, mood swings are endemic. Switching between a kind of perhaps misplaced euphoria and an arguably equally misplaced despair. Come what may, spring sprung last week. There’s more sunshine around, which in itself will help fight coronavirus. Not that the flowers and the birds seem that fussed about it anyway. Now that we humans are not charging around all the time like we usually do, we’ve actually got a chance to notice these things. And savour the silence, instead of the rumble of traffic and the roar of aircraft. Also, we’ve got time to remember our friends and neighbours. And do things for them. Reports abound of random acts of kindness that normally wouldn’t feature in our hectic daily existence. That’s not to underestimate the scale of the crisis, or the bitter price some of us will pay with our lives, and many, many more in financial terms. Nor is it to dodge the immense strains being placed on the public services, particularly the NHS. And on families, forced to spend so much time cooped up together. God knows, the so-called festive season can be bad enough. But there are crumbs of comfort in some of the dark humour doing the rounds. The following tweet’s a good example. ‘Six hours into home-schooling the children. Have decided all teachers should be paid a million pounds a year.’ Likely that’ll resonate with parents up and down the land. And, for sure, there are uncertain times, and in some cases horrible disappointments in prospect for kids whose exams would normally be just round the corner. Though there are also sensible commentators who say maybe the youngsters are tested too much anyway. And that this could be a good moment to re-evaluate the entire system. There are also wise heads arguing that, in this potentially prolonged period of not going to the office, the idea of home-working could catch on. It’d certainly save many wasted hours of travelling each day. Time that could be more usefully spent nurturing the family. Or the garden. Or both. The benefit to the planet is already clearly on display. There’ve been significant drops in levels of air pollutants and warming gases over some cities and regions. The murky waterways of Venice have been clearing up and wildlife heading back to the area. Researchers in New York say carbon monoxide, mainly from cars, has been reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year. And, another annual comparison, it was recently noted that the number of deaths registered in England and Wales each week since the start of the year was well down on the average for the past five years. Yes, actually down. The milder winter may well have helped, but more likely it’s because people really are washing their hands more. If so, that’s a healthy habit to get into. Sticking with the glass half full half empty axis, a respected medical doctor has estimated even on the worst-case scenario ninety-nine per cent of us will not die of Covid-19. On the best case, the death rate falls to one in a thousand. Yes, over-eighties are at highest risk. However, he drily notes, the average life expectancy in UK is just under eighty-one. That’s just a fact. It’s a matter of keeping a sense of perspective. USA Today reports that across The Pond people are queueing up to buy guns and ammunition. One man, worried about looters, shelled out fifteen-hundred dollars on his arsenal, pardon the language. If that’s not a health hazard, nothing is. That’s not to deny we’re facing the biggest crisis since World War Two. Nor is to duck the fact that Boris Johnson has of late been guilty of a fair few missteps in his public response. It’s been noted at his daily coronavirus press conferences he’s sometimes seemed bored by the whole thing. And shown signs of being more than a little out both of his element and depth. Naturally, he’s deferring to the scientific advisers who have after all devoted their entire careers to this sort of thing. But many commentators are suggesting he might pay a little more attention to the details. They also make the point that his arm-waving nudge-nudge nod-and-a-wink style of delivery may not be quite appropriate to the situation, however erudite his choice of words. It worked well for him during the Brexit campaign. Reiterating falsehoods about how much EU membership costs us clearly did sway the vote, but at least it didn’t endanger lives. However, claiming in effect ‘we’ll get coronavirus done’ in twelve weeks could have profound implications for him and everyone else, if it’s proved – like the £350 million a week EU payment non-statistic – to be way adrift of the facts. His own spokespeople, doubtless scenting danger, were quick to cover his back. But the reality is inescapable, and not actually his fault. Politicians in normal times adopt a proactive role, trying to anticipate events and people’s needs, and taking decisions accordingly. Right now it’s the other way round. Less than a fortnight ago the chancellor announced a twelve billion pound emergency stash to protect the economy from the coming shocks. A week later it shot up nearly thirtyfold. To three-hundred and fifty billion. Now, what with pubs, clubs and restaurants closing, he’s going to pay the lion’s share of work-bereft people’s wage as well. Smacks of the old Soviet Union, minus KGB and gulags, fortunately. But even that, combined with the Bank of England’s slashing interest to its lowest ever rate of point one per cent, and its promise to print six-hundred and forty-five billion extra smackers, may not be enough. Parliament is still sitting, in rather splendid isolation, essentially so it can whip through any lightning legislation that suddenly becomes imperative. Confirmation, if any more’s needed, of the absolute reversal of polarities. Normally, covering politics can feel like watching the paint dry. Now it’s more a matter of waiting for the next chunk of ceiling to splat the decorator. Little wonder there’ve been murmurings about setting up a Government of National Unity, on the lines of the Churchill/Atlee coalition in 1940. In less than three weeks it’s pretty much a racing certainty that Sir Keir Starmer will take over as Labour leader. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions he’s got just the right sort of forensic mind for the job in hand. Of course Boris Johnson would hate the idea. But Sir K would be the perfect sidekick, if it came to it. More likely it won’t. But there are hopes of salvation, in the shape of a fast-tracked new vaccine to being tried on humans this week at Porton Down. And an experiment involving thirty-six French patients with Covid-19. When they were given an existing anti-malaria drug, seventy per cent of them had got rid of the virus within less than a week. Multiply that up, and consider the possible global benefits in the short to medium term… Meantime, the Queen has retreated from Buckingham Palace to join Prince Philip at Windsor Castle. A very sensible precaution, and nice homes if you can get them. But only if. However, quarantine has historically brought benefits of a kind. When Shakespeare fled London to escape bubonic plague he did manage to write King Lear and Macbeth. A cracking legacy, if ever there was one. Even though, as is commonly acknowledged, they’re not hugely funny plays. 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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