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Worse and worse .. then better?

Sunday April 5, 2020.

As the coronavirus caseload and death toll continue to rise alarmingly, more and more of us know someone who’s fallen victim. So the new self-isolation regime is being taken more seriously. And, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, it appears the government is inching closer to a viable exit strategy. ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ The oft-quoted Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is only a cliché because – like most clichés – it pithily states a nugget of wisdom. Reading millions of minds is impossible. But there’s a widespread sense that most are quietly accepting a changed way of life, on the grounds they can’t do anything about it. Not so for those traumatised by losing loved ones, likewise people terrified they’re running out of money and food, and parents teetering on despair at being shut up with unhappy children. The rest of us can only guess at their torment. Warnings about the potential impact on mental health and incidence of domestic violence, combined with the massive spike in benefit claims, indicate the scale of the problem. Meantime, unscrambling the thought processes of those in government is easier. They’re tasked with figuring out what things they can change. And can be judged by results. For all the media flak they’ve taken, a YouGov poll this week put the Tories on fifty-two per cent, a staggering twenty-four points ahead of the opposition. With a new Labour leader at long last in place, that might change in time. But unlikely for now. It’s a sign of the crazy times we’re living in that Sir Keir Starmer’s resounding victory is more a ripple than a splash. More relevant to the rest of us is the clear evidence that ministers have finally got their heads round testing people for Covid-19. That matters because it means hospitals will be able to distinguish between medics needing to stay at home and those who can safely treat patients. And there’s significant new capacity suddenly on stream, with the conversion of the ExCel convention centre in East London into a field hospital designed to look after four thousand patients. The whole thing moved from blank sheet to fully operational in less than a fortnight, thanks to extraordinary oomph provided by the army. So much for the old joke that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron, like bittersweet. Jolly well worked this time. That’s just for starters. Several more of similar ilk will be created. And soon. And, more good news, a revolutionary machine that answers the infection question in just ninety minutes – as opposed to the whole day the diagnosis currently takes – is to swing into action across the UK shortly. This makes Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s promise of an increase in daily testing from ten to a hundred thousand look a little more plausible, in spite of manufacturers’ concerns that they might not be able to meet demand. On a personal level he certainly cut a believable figure when he made the announcement. His grasp of detail was as striking as his sincerity was palpable. Little wonder, as he himself is only now getting over the disease. Also, rather handily, he promised to write off a huge chunk of old NHS debt. The hope being that trusts will crack on with greater confidence in dealing with the pandemic. Evidence suggests the health service is already learning more efficient ways of working, which are liable to last long after the crisis is over. It feels like an echo of the so-called ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, when the Thames became so horribly smelly that it got right up the noses of parliamentarians, so to speak. Result? Hey presto, the government finally sorted the sewers. Another minister who seems to be getting the message is the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who’s told banks to shell out emergency loans to more businesses. This could be an almighty relief to many small firms – and their employees – as they struggle to stay afloat. But, while British leaders currently look like they’re doing their best, some others are doing their worst. Notably in Hungary. There, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has decided the answer to the pandemic is an emergency law allowing him to suspend elections and parliament, and govern any way he likes. For as long as he likes. First off, he can jail people for spreading what he’d term disinformation about the virus. Meaning, in effect, no one in future can criticise his government. In Russia too, there’s a new law making it an imprisonable offence to circulate so-called ‘fake’ coronavirus news that leads to deaths. But at least Vladimir Putin has put back a planned vote that could potentially make him president for life. It seems he’s decided now is not a good time to annoy too many people at once. He still fancies the idea, mind. Now compare and contrast all that with what some of the good guys are doing here at home. While the Competition and Markets Authority is receiving forty complaints an hour about alleged profiteering over coronavirus-related products, several companies have responded very differently. Alcohol being the key ingredient of sanitiser, some leading pub suppliers are lending a squeaky-clean hand, pumping out the stuff to boost supplies. Loch Lomond, an independent Scotch distiller that normally sells more than 100 million bottles of booze a year, is now going to make tens of thousands of litres of washing stuff. For free. So are loads of others. And some suspended high street staffers can cheer their bosses. Kurt Geiger’s chief executive has forgone his salary, promised all his employees full pay for the duration, and suggested they do voluntary work instead. Timpsons the shoe repairer has also promised full basic pay for everyone. And Greggs the bakers have said they’ll do the same for as long as they can, and handed free food to the homeless before shutting up shop. Who says there’s no such thing as society? Well, Margaret Thatcher did, actually, in an interview with Women’s Own, back in the eighties. It was a humdinger of a quote. ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families .. people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.’ An upside, maybe, of all the ghastliness going on right now is a bit of a rethink. Remember how Boris Johnson, himself a coronavirus victim, started the week? His quote is shorter, but no less stark. ‘There really is such a thing as society.’ A pertinent observation, as it turned out three-quarters of a million people volunteered to help the NHS fight Covid-19. Three times the target. Also worth considering the solidarity thrown in. In addition to the weekly ‘clap for carers’ tribute there’s a moving story about an ambulance paramedic in Norfolk. Not only did fellow shoppers outside Lidl in Cromer applaud him, one woman ran up as he went to pay and swiped her card. ‘Not much you can do to stop me.’ That was all she said. 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.


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