Let’s do what’s safe and healthy. Which might not be the same as doing what the government says.
Since the prime minister announced a lockdown in the UK on Monday, you might be tempted to think that the government has got a grip of the coronavirus crisis. I don’t think so.
The UK’s testing regime is a shambles. After weeks of delay, and thanks to massive public pressure, the government is promising – without giving a timeline – tests for front-line health service workers.
Those workers are having to take time off sick, because they can’t get tested. They are
desperately short of personal protective equipment. And worried about the deluge of sufferers now arriving in hospitals.
The situation with the supply of ventilators for those who fall seriously ill is alarming. The government refused to join a European buying scheme – and then pathetically tried to cover its tracks by claiming officials did not receive an email. Brussels nailed that lie quickly.
Manufacturers of ventilators who offered the government help have been ignored. Instead, a contract was offered to Tory party supporter James Dyson, whose company has no relevant experience.
Senior ministers feel comfortable covering their tracks with deceit and diversion. Michael Gove, challenged by journalists yesterday to explain the disastrous failure on testing, tried to blame China. The editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has given chapter and verse on that one.
The government was forced to change its initial laissez faire policy, which appeared to prioritise allowing businesses to keep working for as long as possible. That became unsustainable. But let’s remember the timeline:
■ On 12 March (two and a half weeks ago), Boris Johnson announced a series of measures, including asking those with symptoms to self-isolate, urging elderly people with underlying conditions not to go on cruises, and advising cancellation of school trips abroad. Medical experts were shocked at the lack of rigour. They were mystified that, for example, big public events had not been banned – and the next day, most sports authorities, without waiting for the government, banned them anyway.
■ On 19 March, the government announced that schools were closing – after millions of parents had already taken their children out of school.
■ On 21-22 March, an incredibly sunny weekend for this time of year, families – now setting out on a three-month stretch with children at home – headed to the park in large numbers.
Cue newspaper headlines and speeches from ministers, criticising ordinary people for failing to observe social distancing rules. On top of newspaper headlines and speeches from ministers, criticising ordinary people who in previous weeks, alarmed by a health crisis the government was doing little to address, went “panic buying” to protect their families.
■ On 23 March, the lockdown was announced, including a directive for “non-essential” work to stop. And big financial support for businesses, plus a scheme to make up wages for some workers.
And again, the rhetoric was focused on ordinary people’s failure to observe the rules put in place, belatedly, a few days before.
The lockdown guidelines about staying at home, not visiting friends, and so on, make sense to me, and our family is sticking to them. The rules for elderly people with underlying conditions are also clear.
But the messages from the government about how and when people can leave home are confusing, and – as far as I can tell, talking to friends who work in jobs dealing with public health – illogical.
The government recommends that you go out only for shopping, to help vulnerable friends and neighbours, and once a day for exercise. Michael Gove, the man who thinks the country has “had enough of experts”, said yesterday that that exercise meant an hour’s walk, or half an hour’s run or cycle ride.
If this is a public health strategy, then I am santa claus.
■ What are Gove’s guidelines based on? Why shouldn’t people go out for three or four hours’ exercise if they feel like it, as long as they keep two metres or more away from their fellow citizens? Why shouldn’t they go out three or four times a day? Nothing is better for health – mental and physical – than plenty of exercise.
■ What about young families? Should, or could, parents take their young children – with whom they live at home in close physical contact – out to the park to kick a football about, or other types of exercise? Why isn’t the government encouraging them to do so? (I understand that playgrounds with shared equipment need to be closed – I am talking about families using open spaces.)
■ And what about people who live alone? Providing they are not in vulnerable categories who need to self-isolate completely, why can they not arrange to meet a friend for a chat, while keeping two metres apart? (People are doing this in the park where I live, but why are they not encouraged to do so by government?) In my view, such flexibility is vital for people’s health and well-being, during a lockdown that could last for months.
I reckon that any group of doctors, nurses and care workers could sit around a table and in half an hour come up with a better public health strategy than the government’s.
The patricians and aristocrats in ministerial jobs can only imagine strategies that instruct, command and control. A public health strategy that treats the population like thinking adults is completely alien to their way of thinking.
And here’s a question for friends in the Labour Party. What are all these Labour councils doing? Some of them have spoken up – as Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, did, to protest about non-essential workplaces staying open. But some of them are invisible.
What is Tower Hamlets council doing, closing Victoria Park in east London? The huge local population, many of whom live in flats without gardens, now have even fewer places to go out and exercise.
Is it really beyond the council’s wits to open the park, and re-deploy staff from non-urgent jobs to act as wardens, reminding people of the “social distancing” policy and talking to them about how to make it work?
Could they not put up some signs, like Hackney council has done in some parks – signs that (since, surprise surprise, the population is actually made up of thinking adults) are largely being respected?
We are just at the start of this in the UK. The coronavirus crisis will not wish away class politics and class conflict. It will reproduce it in new ways. Communities are working out collective responses to the virus independently of government. Let’s keep doing that. GL, 30 March 2020.