Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Appearances can often turn out to be rather misleading. Only last week did it emerge in the Telegraph that one of the most celebrated British children’s authors of all time, Roald Dahl, may have had some undisclosed help, from a friend, in constructing his 1943 masterpiece, The Gremlins.
Until now, the issue of the coronavirus pandemic has experienced a thorough depoliticisation. Our rightful praise of the deserving heroes of the National Health Service has left little media coverage or popular will for a constructive critique of the handling of the situation by health professionals, political leaders, and global institutions. Indeed, early on in April, Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a swift response to legitimate criticism from President Trump over China’s alleged cover-up of COVID-19’s rapid spread, appeared to rhetorically outlaw any such conversation, threatening: ‘If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing [COVID-19]’. The convincing appearance? That political pundits, objective experts, and members of the public should refrain from commenting on the virus in any contentious sense, for fear of it turning into a political football.
But I would contend that this is undoubtedly a cynical move to stifle much-needed debate. This is particularly when we take into account the fact that Health was second only to Brexit among voter priorities during the 2019 General Election, and that the government has set itself a range of ambitious targets (to say the least) in an effort to defeat the virus. For example, appearing on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday senior cabinet minister Michael Gove said that it was the government’s ‘first priority’ to provide key workers with sufficient continuing supplies of PPE. This coincided with a statement by Gavin Williamson that the protection of vulnerable children and reopening schools quickly and safely was, you guessed it, the government’s ‘first priority’. And that isn’t to mention the outlandish promise by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to achieve 100,000 daily coronavirus tests by the end of the month.
Delving tangibly, then, into the political realm of coronavirus, and in the spirit of wartime optimism so often cited by world leaders during this pandemic, it would be apt to start by praising the unquestionable successes of the government. For example, the Johnson administration’s message has been simple, concise, and singularly clear from the beginning of the full-scale lockdown on March 23rd. The profound words stapled across the government’s promotional material is consistent: ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’, and have been repeated aggressively at every opportunity. It is this stolid resolve to protect the lives of the British people, led by the advice of scientific professionals, that has led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson receiving undue criticism for resisting attempts to ease stringent lockdown measures. Furthermore, the government have this week launched one of the most generous furlough systems in the world. Chancellor Rishi Sunak pledges to cover 80% of workers’ wages, up to £2,500 a month under the Job Retention Scheme, in a move that will give confidence and provide a crucial lifeline to the workers and businesses that the British economy relies on.
However, on fronts other than messaging and job retention, the government has failed, and it is imperative that when we find fault with the government during a crisis, it is highlighted. For example, there are approximately 416,000 older and vulnerable people living in care homes across the UK, with nearly one-fifth of over-85s living in assisted residences. At present, the government has no statistics for coronavirus-related deaths outside of hospitals, but Care England has estimated that over 7,500 care home residents are feared dead due to the virus. This is nearly one-third of all coronavirus fatalities in the UK. The government has been far from tough with The Care Quality Commission (CQC), leading to accusations that the industry regulator is ‘dragging their heels’.
Levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) for care home staff are running dangerously low, with grave fears that the hands-on job could leave thousands of dedicated workers infected. This week, the arrival of 400,000 life-saving surgical gowns due to be imported from Turkey for use in hospitals and care homes was delayed without any explanation from the government. This added to the shambolic series of events related to crucial resources that began with a ‘communications mix-up’ which saw the UK missing out on a European Union ventilator scheme.
In addition, the UK government’s risk assessment of the coronavirus at the beginning of the year was wildly miscalculated. In Germany, people were asked very early a month ago to remain isolated and health spending was increased to a record 11.1% of GDP in order to facilitate the highest swab-testing levels in Europe. Meanwhile, our Prime Minister was laughing and joking about shaking hands with those suffering from coronavirus in hospital.
Lastly, the government has been suspiciously quiet on its decision to allow Huawei to build parts of the UK’s 5G network, the highly contentious issue that saw the first, albeit mild, Tory rebellion of this parliament. Despite passing through a watershed moment in our relation to China as we learn of institutional dishonesty and cover-ups at the heart of the Chinese government. The UK cabinet continues to deem it fit that our security systems are put at risk by a firm that is known to act as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China.
Back in February and early March, the UK government’s response was lacklustre, to say the least. The leadership team’s obstinate commitment to Brexit trade negotiations shows a warped dedication to ideological priorities. This now appears particularly absurd given the fact that leading negotiators on both sides recently fell seriously ill with the disease. Thankfully, Boris Johnson and his team now seem fully committed to defeating this unprecedented invisible enemy. Millions of people up and down the country will be grateful to our Prime Minister for his unwavering dedication to getting Britain back on track in recent weeks. Yet the response was not perfect, nor was it immediate. Whilst it might be this government’s desire to brazenly repeat the cynical words of Mary’s husband in Roald Dahl’s short story Lamb to the Slaughter, ‘I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss’, it is high time that we slaughter the sacred cow of uncritical coronavirus coverage. The media ought to duly, though not excessively, politicise our reporting of this government’s ambivalent response to the coronavirus outbreak.