39. Drawing Us Together While Pulling Us Apart

Peter Burke,
Oxford For Europe

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Drawing Us Together While Pulling Us Apart

12 April 2020

During the Irish potato famine of 1847, under the Government of Lord Russell, as people starved, Ireland continued to be a net exporter of grain. In the run-up to this coronavirus crisis, the UK was an exporter of ventilators. Why? Simple failure to do what other countries had done, to anticipate a crisis which was staring us in the face.

This has turned out to be the most bizarre Easter weekend any of us have experienced. As I write this, the UK is recording the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths of any European country. This now includes 2 members of staff at the John Radcliffe. Boris Johnson has just been discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital with the infection. Obviously we all wish him well, as we would in the case of any fellow human being suffering from this serious condition. During the PM’s incapacity, Dominic Raab is in charge. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, we can only hope….

Meanwhile the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader will, we can hope, herald a new era in British politics. Perhaps it will mean an end to the domination of the party by the extreme left, and may pave the way for at least a taste of moderation on the other side of the political divide. He has  committed to work collaboratively where this in is in the national interest. This is no time for ya boo politics, and we really need to see such a spirit from our leaders. Perhaps they will follow the example of ordinary citizens who are doing their bit and more for the common good.

And ordinary citizens are doing amazing things.

The Coronavirus Act, the most restrictive piece of legislation ever in peacetime, has now been in force for 3 weeks. Ordinary people are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices. And not just being asked, the verb used by Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock was “instruct”. People reading this will already be all too well aware how our lives have changed. It is now technically illegal for boyfriends and girlfriends even to meet if they live in different houses. Victims of domestic abuse are being required by law to stay at home with the perpetrator. Children are required to stay away from school in what may be cramped and indeed explosive conditions. And parents, many for the first time in their lives, are expected to turn overnight into confident and competent teachers. Places of worship are locked up precisely at a time when many people would wish to be there. And at no time is this more evident than at Easter / Passover.  The traditional rights of movement and assembly have been suspended, initially for weeks but few believe it will end there. There will be huge effects on the nation’s mental health. And the impact on family budgets has been incalculable.  Yet a majority of people have accepted all this as necessary. By the time the lockdown came it was seen by the opposition, by the scientific community and by the public at large, not as a power grab, but as a belated concession to reality.

But a note of caution. If people are to respect such rules going forward – and they may need to be in force for a long time – they must be based on trust.

We have to trust that the government is implementing them in the interests of the public, not as some form of martial law by another name. We need a government which shows competence, honesty and probity. And we need to believe that the new rules are being applied fairly and equitably.

Competence? The time for public enquiries and Royal Commissions may be in the future. However, serious mistakes were committed since the crisis broke, and indeed before, which are now costing people their lives. A pandemic scenario was game-played under Mrs. May’s government in 2016 (Exercise Cygnus), and concluded that better preparation was required – this was ignored and the report never published. Even the Telegraph was highly critical of this blatent failure. In 2017 the Conservative government committed a just-in-time approach to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which has left the country hopelessly unprepared. In January, instead of trying to make good on the shortfall, the government did nothing and hoped it could get by on a wing and a prayer.

Not all PPE is the same

Even now, with the crisis not yet having peaked, key workers are having to beg, steal and borrow equipment because it is not reaching them via normal supply lines. This is no way to treat people who are risking their lives in the frontline. The new Nightingale Hospital (odd choice of name, given the reality of the original Nightingale Wards), in London’s Excel Centre, is filling up with seriously ill Covid positive patients, and too little thought seems to have been given to where the required 16,000 staff are to come from, and even less to where they are to get their PPE. In the care sector the situation is even worse. Why should essential workers have to rely on donated equipment from schools and film sets? Why is it seen as necessary to gag NHS staff, and even dismiss those who speak out? And, just as reprehensibly, when confronted with stark evidence of government incompetence, Matt Hancock tried to say that PPE was being over-used. He was rightly condemned from across the board for such a breath-taking exercise in blame shifting. Honesty? Probity? I wonder..

Nightingale Ward at St Thomas’s Hospital, London

Similarly, there is a massive missed opportunity in the supply of ventilators. Before the crisis peaked, several British manufacturers offered their services to the government and were rebuffed, leading them to export their products. The government missed the opportunity to participate in the European joint procurement scheme, which during the transition period it could easily have done. It made a variety of excuses, not the least of which was the story of the missed email, which have been systematically refuted by the other side. And then there is the question of testing, with promise after promise being made by a government which must really know it is unable to deliver because it never planned ahead.

If for a second you attribute this to bad luck rather than ineptitude, look at the Irish Republic. Movement restrictions were in place a week sooner. Testing is being done on a much greater scale (over 8/1000 so far compared with 4/1000 in the UK), and the government is flying in £180m worth of PPE directly from China. Is the UK doing the same? Why is this Government being so inert? Is it just British exceptionalism, as Fintan O’Toole suggests?: ‘On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed’. And the figures show that he is right. The reported deaths per 100,000 in the UK (likely an underestimate) are 14.8, compared with 6.4 in Ireland.

And there is the question of the rules being applied fairly. Admittedly the police have been placed in an invidious position. They are already overstretched through government led workforce depletion and absence through illness/isolation, and they are having to do something unprecedented. However, what justification is there for solo walkers being arrested for sitting on a park bench, or for people being warned against letting their children play on their own front lawn? To quote: ‘It’s closer to the Keystone Cops than to 1984’. All this while planeloads of people are being allowed to arrive at Heathrow and get straight onto the tube, having travelled from hotspots such as Italy and Iran. Surely justice must not just be done but seen to be done?

Even the Tory Press is getting fed up

While all this is going on, of course, the major problems which preoccupied us back in December are still there. The multiple complex wars in the Middle East, in Yemen, in Africa for one thing. And then there is Ebola, Trump, Putin and the advances of both Islamic and right-wing extremism, not to mention the refugee crisis.

And then there is still Brexit. That unfolding psychodrama continues unabated. We cannot afford to let politicians, of whatever hue, use the pandemic as an excuse to take their eye and ours off the ball. At the moment we are less than 9 months from the end of the transition period, and there are no substantial negotiations going on towards a trade deal –  this may well be understandable  as there are more important fish to fry. However if there is no deal then we will be saddled in January with what the government is pleased to call the “Australian deal”, i.e. nothing at all. The country could not afford this before and can do so even less as a time of international crisis. That is why Oxford for Europe, together with its many sister organisations around the country, is calling for a two-year extension. This is within the gift of the UK government provided that the appropriate legislation has been passed and the request made by the end of June. There really is no alternative. Surely the time to stand on the principles of a ‘pure Brexit’ is long gone? Surely the argument that we needed Brexit in order to achieve control of our borders is now shown up as fatuous nonsense? Countries within Schengen have closed their borders when they perceived an overwhelming need to do so, and that was not something that the EU could prevent. So where it matters, individual nation states still maintain control. When even an arch-Brexiter such as Isabel Oakeshott sees extension as inevitable, it leaves the cabinet looking very lonely in its intransigence. Various petitions are going on and I would urge you to sign, as well as writing to your MP on the subject (see below). As Rafael Behr writes, the pandemic has made “the whole [Brexit] project look parochial and self-indulgent”. 

Secondly, it is welcome news that there will be at least a temporary amnesty for healthcare workers from the EU. However this is not enough. The government needs to understand that citizens’ rights are a crucial issue and it is within the national interest, now more than ever, to ensure that our fellow Europeans continue to be welcomed in the UK. A very good starting point would be to keep the door open to essential workers, including those in healthcare. It is galling, at this time, to find Priti Patel emerge from her silence solely to press forward her already-discredited points-based immigration system.

Thirdly, while all this is going on negotiations continue below the radar on a trade deal with the US. In the form envisaged by the Tory right, this can only happen if we lower our standards and distance ourselves from those of the European Union. Pandemic or not, this would be massively to the country’s detriment and must be resisted at all costs. The absence of a functioning parliament and the impossibility of collective public protest should not be allowed to provide cover.

I would like to end on a more positive note. At the same time as making individuals walk literally 2 m apart, this crisis has served to bring them together. It has shown the selfless dedication of frontline NHS staff (and I have to declare that I am not one of them – currently I carry out only remote consultations), and of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have volunteered to help out with no prospect of gain and potentially some risk to themselves. All around the country groups of people are working together to help and support those less fortunate than themselves. As George Monbiot puts it: ‘The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.’. There is a national resource available for contacting a local group near you. There is also an Oxfordshire resource.

And locally a lot else is going on. In the face of Government inaction, a team based in Oxford has produced a new basic but serviceable ventilator, the Oxvent. Oxford University is at the forefront of Covid-related research, with 113 Principal Investigators and a total of 650 researchers working on vaccine development, testing kits, ventilators and other essential projects.

As for the Prime Minister, we can hope that when he has made his recovery he will not forget the lessons he learned in hospital, about the selflessness, dedication and hard work of the front line hospital staff. He will have learned much about why the NHS has such a special place in people’s hearts. And, if he has any conscience at all, he will have learned about the folly of throwing the healthcare workforce into danger unprepared. Finally he will have learned that this is not a condition to be treated lightly, and that determined, positive and timely action is needed in order to overcome it. The problem will not solve itself.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe.

Click here for the European Movement petition to extend the transition period.

Click here for March For Change Petition

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