The Trial of the People
There have been numerous opinions aired regarding the present crisis that has enveloped the world - and it is a worldwide crisis, of that there is no doubt or disagreement. There is however considerable disagreement about cause, effect and consequence.
There is also a huge gulf, and a growing one, over what comes next. On the one hand, some say ‘lock down everything and everybody for as long as it takes’. The opposite point of view suggests that none of the present actions have been necessary, should not have been imposed and should be removed as rapidly as possible, immediately, if not sooner. The truth (as it usually does) lies somewhere between the two.
But where does one start in describing, assessing, commenting on, or otherwise remarking upon something that only a very small number of those still alive have experienced before? Yes there has been any number of instances over the years that at best, puts everybody in a difficult position and at worst, make normal daily living almost impossible. Shooting wars that inevitably impact on those caught in it, terrorist outrages, health scares, drought and shortages of one kind or another. But these have been very short-lived, generally limited in overall consequence and no single event has had such a quick and adverse impact quite literally across the entire globe as the COVID-19 outbreak, and certainly not in my lifetime.
Who remembers the sun-bleached summer of 1976, a time when people had to queue for water from standpipes in the road? I don’t as it happens but I do remember the more recent hot and dry summers. But none have matched 1976, at least not yet. But there will be more of them and estimates suggest that demand in the UK will exceed the country’s ability to supply water by 2046 – only twenty-six years from now. And what of the ‘bread strike’ - just a year after that long, hot summer, bakery workers went on strike, leading to a drastic shortage of one of the most common items in your weekly shopping. One of the most notable aspects to that was panic-buying when the strike was announced, leading to shops and supermarkets imposing strict limits on the number of loaves one could buy. Smaller shops refused to sell bread to anybody except their known regulars, one of whom was my Father - so we weren't too badly affected by the strike. Another was Manchester United’s foray into European competition – away to St Etienne, French supporters mocked United’s by throwing bread rolls at them. The reaction (perhaps unsurprisingly) led to riots in France and UEFA punished United by instructing them to play the return leg at least 200 miles from Manchester. The game took place at Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park. But nothing was said about the behaviour of the French at St Etienne – why not?
The 1970s were a time when the UK was known as ‘the sick man of Europe’ for its sclerotic economy and striking workers. Since then however, the country has gained in strength and despite the occasional hiccup, has not suffered from problems now often, and perhaps wrongly, associated with other countries. One of the most oft-quoted reasons is the traditional British stoicism, self-discipline, strength of character – the British ‘stiff upper lip’ one might say. But the country today is not the same as it was thirty and more years ago. People are now very different. The UK today lacks many of the characteristics that saw it through World War II for example. I’m also far from certain that the abilities shown in 1982 during the Falklands conflict could be repeated today.
HMS Broadsword and the carrier HMS Hermes in 1982 (Royal Navy)
April 5 by the way, is the anniversary of the day the task force set sail to retake the islands and it is that conflict that marked something of a turning point; nobody really thought the UK could pull it off - but even though they were thousands of miles from home, the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force did. It was also the point at which Britain regained its self-respect – we could achieve something after all. The country had grown weary of strikes, of general doom and gloom, with crumbling, outdated infrastructure, unresponsive services in general and a marked deterioration in a multitude of other aspects to daily living. People had seen triumph thirty-seven years before but instead of a glorious renaissance, the UK, burdened by the debts of WW2, had sunk into an abyss of self-pity and mediocrity. But the Falklands Conflict did more than uplift the spirits of the nation. Compared to previous conflicts, news from it was relayed back to the UK with remarkable speed – this was in the days before the internet remember but it was probably the first conflict that was reported on more or less as it happened. Since then, the growth of what has become known as the ‘I want it and I want it now’ society has been a remarkable – and regrettable - aspect to the way in which we go about things.
The conflict was also the last in which serving politicians had been somewhere and done something with their lives. In all three major parties there were men and women who had seen, sometimes at first hand, the devastating results of war. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal parties all had people who knew at least something of real life. Where are such people today? They are not to be found. Look at it from a simple point of view; somebody born in 1982 will have their thirty-eighth birthday in 2020 – how many up-and-coming politicians are around that age? Health Secretary Matt Hancock, widely praised last week, is forty-one so was only three when the Falklands conflict took place. His boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fifty-five however. New Labour Leader Sir Kier Starmer is two years older at fifty-seven and his new deputy, Angela Rayner is actually forty – she was born in 1980.
The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP (Richard Townshend)
What of Tony Blair? Blair became leader of the Labour party in 1994. Having been born in 1953, he was forty-one when he became so but looked younger. He was only twenty-seven when the Falklands conflict took place and became an MP in 1983 – one year later and not even in his thirties. Blair was the first of the ‘cool, young and funky’ politicians and (a point I make in my book, Comments of a Common Man Edition 3) provoked a Europe-wide tide of similar youthful-looking politicians. And it is there we find the beginnings of today’s problems.
The Rt Hon Sir Kier Starmer MP
Since Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 – only twenty-three years ago – a huge change has swept across not just the UK but all around the globe. Young parents, either with equally young children or with children soon to be born, have got used to the instant gratification thinking engendered by Blair’s leadership and their children have grown up to become what are sometimes referred to as the ‘snowflake’ generations. At the same time, the rise of the internet has encompassed the world and it was Blair’s successor as PM, Gordon Brown, who said that Broadband was as essential as a washing machine. Allied to what appeared to be an obsession with youth and ‘Cool Britannia’, Blair’s government subtly brought about a disregard for older generations, which brings us rather neatly to the idea that today, older people must be allowed to die in favour of the young when it comes to COVID-19 (for more on age discrimination, read Comments of a Common Man Edition 3). What is also significant is that Labour, under Blair, won three successive general elections, and were in power for thirteen years – the first time in its history the party had governed for so long.
That side effect of Blair’s apparent youth and vitality transmitted to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who turfed out Sir Menzies Campbell and got the boyish Nick Clegg, who served as Deputy Prime Minister under the equally cool and youthful David Cameron. All three, Blair, Cameron and Clegg, were lightweight figures with no hands-on, hard-won experience of real life. And no knowledge of hardship and what it might be like to live under a dictatorship, with everybody restrained by the power of the state. The result is that today, like everywhere else, the UK was not prepared for a condition like COVID-19. The country ran out of life experience some time ago.
We live in a country that, for almost four decades, has broadly speaking, not wanted for much. Everything has been relatively easy and everything has been geared towards the young. Despite that, there are still even today, legions of forgotten people. People at the lower end of the spectrum, lower paid or not even paid at all, who cannot afford to buy their own home, still less panic-buy huge stocks of supplies; people who exist from week to week or even by the day. And many of those are getting on a bit. They aren’t young, so who cares? Let ‘em die and if there is a handy disease around, even better.
This is by the way, not only a legacy of the Blair and Cameron years but also of journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter. Street-Porter has in fact, been around for a remarkably long time but back in the 1980s was at the forefront of what was known at the time as ‘yoof culture’. She actively promoted the cause of the young at the expense of the old and interestingly in more recent times – and now that she herself is not so young anymore – has admitted that she was wrong to have been so dismissive of the older generations.
The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister
So what of the current pandemic? One of the consequences of the desire for immediacy today is the absence from mainstream news media, both print and broadcast, of real objectivity and plain unadorned fact. Newspapers have, for decades, been perceived as purveyors of half-truths and distortion but it seems more prevalent now than ever before. As I’ve already said, COVID-19 is a crisis but is it quite what it has been made out to be? Are people really dying from ‘The Coronavirus’?
The word Coronavirus is a generic term that includes a number of related conditions. Among these are three strains of the common cold, MERS, SARS and SARS-Cov-2 which results in COVID-19. You will not die from any of them. The symptoms are broadly similar and what any Coronavirus does is to open the door to other infections – and it is these that can kill. Pneumonia is a common one and many people have contracted it after nothing more than an ordinary cold and died. Yet when one gets a cold, what is the usual advice? Stay at home, take paracetamol – GPs do not these days, generally prescribe anything for a cold but the advice is the same – don’t go out. We all know how quickly a cold can spread, as can flu and we know people can die from that – and they do, in their thousands each year and in the UK. Except…it is not the flu itself that causes death but the complications that can arise from having it, complications like Pneumonia (Flu by the way is not a Coronavirus but the symptoms are broadly very similar).
COVID-19 (C19) is different because of its strength and the extra speed with which it can spread, as we have seen over recent weeks. It is also caused by a new strain of coronavirus, which is why there is no existing vaccine. Once present, the body’s immune system attacks it, as it does other infections, but C19 fights back and multiplies very quickly. The body responds and the battle between the two intensifies. As a result, the immune system becomes more indiscriminate when attacking C19 and begins to destroy anything in the way, including healthy cells that are needed for us to stay well. The body then gets weaker, which is how other complications can develop and it is those that can be the cause of death. Older people, whose immune systems are not as strong as they once were, can be prone to such complications, as can anybody who already has any condition that weakens the body – the ‘underlying health conditions’ sometimes referred to. But C19 and any coronavirus, does not respect age and even teenagers can get a cold. So the idea that only the old are affected is a myth.
People however, are not all the same. Some will be weaker than others, even though they otherwise are healthy and well. This is why some people have died as a result of contracting C19 – their body may not function as well as others. Ordinarily this may not matter but because they have a natural weakness somewhere within, the arrival of C19 creates the perfect storm for those other conditions to develop rapidly and death can be very quick. This is why we have seen some examples of apparently healthy people struck down by ‘The Coronavirus’ when in fact, it is not C19 that has caused death. C19 may well be the trigger that results in dying – but it is not the cause. Most of us will be familiar with a man of six feet plus in height with build to match, the one we, perhaps secretly, wish to be. We know of the five-foot weakling, that puny-looking chap we don’t want to emulate but why is it that the six-footer suddenly dies? Yet the little guy, who one might expect to fall prey to virulent disease, is unaffected. It is because despite the outward appearance, internally, the weakling is in fact, much the stronger.
We know that an ordinary cold can spread quickly too and we know that flu can do the same. The advice remains – stay at home and get better. It has logic admittedly but the one flaw with this is that should one get worse with no treatment, what might have been avoidable becomes inevitable; you die. The same applies to C19 as well as a whole range of other illnesses. Even so, we have never shut down the world because of sniffles and a sore throat, despite the fact that flu kills thousands every year. So why do it now?
The answer is those life-inexperienced politicians, who feel desperate to be loved, who need to be seen to respond with a firm hand, who don’t have the real knowledge to pause, think and then act with wisdom. They must be seen to be doing something and all too often respond to what is perceived to be ‘popular’. This is not a just a UK problem but can be seen around the world and the lockdown of society is going to have serious consequences for the world’s economy. Yet it has been so unnecessary.
Yes, stay at home and don’t go out unless you have to. Yes practice ‘social distancing’. But is this any different from a common cold? Not really. We don’t shut every shop and close every border because of it. What’s missing from the current situation is balance and thought. It makes sense to stand about two metres from everybody else when queuing at Asda – but the same could apply at any shop, including clothes shops, garden centres and McDonalds. It makes sense to limit the numbers inside stores. It makes sense to say, ‘don’t go sunbathing just because everybody’s off work and the sun is out’. It makes sense to say stay at home – many would with an ordinary cold. C19 is no different in that respect.
It does not make sense to put so many people out of work, thus increasing the welfare bill. It does not make sense to shut down the world with all the inevitable consequences this is going to have. It does not make sense for governments to give themselves sweeping new powers to place a previously free people under virtual house arrest; by all means go after those who have been ignorant enough to sunbathe this past weekend – just don’t take it out on the rest of us…it makes no sense.
And it makes no sense to assume that just because everything has been so hunky-dory throughout your adult life, it always will be. We maintain the Fire Service because they might be needed, not because they are every day – so why haven’t we had more hospital capacity, in all respects, in case we need it? We come back to politicians who have never experienced the downside to life again; maintaining 'spare' hospital capacity costs money and there are more obvious things 'to be seen to be doing' and every politician lives and acts for the here and now - not what happened in the past and not for what might or might not happen in a future they cannot comprehend. And even though it is admittedly difficult to prepar