Don’t know about you, but the burning question on my lips as the bodies piled up last week was: “How is the Prime Minister spending his convalescence?” Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long to find out. Unluckily, the answer was not ruminating on the error of his ways. Or vowing to atone for past mistakes. According to the many journalists who had been so briefed, Boris Johnson did not mark Good Friday with an examination of his conscience. Rather he whiled away his time watching rom coms and doing sudokus.
Almost 1,000 deaths in a day. Seven times the number of lives lost at Aberfan; ten times the number of lives lost at Hillsborough. Those disasters which cast dark shadows over our childhoods are themselves being overshadowed by the virus now marauding through the wasted UK, plundering our gold.
Yes, I agree the language of the battlefield is best avoided. But that is how this whole crisis has been framed. And when you stop to think about it, it is apt to the point of heart-breaking. Frontline troops let down by officers who see the old and the frail as expendable. What is the concept of “herd immunity” if not a war of attrition in which a large number of casualties is tolerated in order to achieve a goal? Same as it ever was: lions led by donkeys.
How it shocked those at the top to realise even generals could be felled. And yet, what an opportunity it provided: an excuse to rally the nation behind the dear leader; an excuse to put tough questions aside. And so, as new hospitals were conjured up out of nowhere, we were told now, NOW is the time to take this thing seriously. As hundreds mourned loved ones who passed away without public acknowledgment, we were forced to listen to a running commentary on one man’s recovery. He’s sitting up, he’s engaging with staff, he’s watching Love Actually. Johnson is a precious resource. Just like the PPE Matt Hancock says medical staff should be using sparingly. The Prime Minister’s cheerleaders even tried to sully our one great expression of communal gratitude – that weekly socially distant coming together when neighbourhoods echo to the sound of applause. Wish Boris well: fair enough. But clap for Boris? Gie us peace.
This whole disgusting exercise reached its apotheosis in the Sun’s front page as Johnson left hospital. Boris is Out (Now that really is a Good Friday). A Good Friday. The day when our daily death toll soared (as the Sun would have it) higher than Italy’s or Spain’s. When those countries reached their daily peaks (971 and 950 respectively), we stared aghast at images of hazmat suits and overcrowded hospital wards and ice rinks turned into morgues. But now we are in the same place, what are we being fed? Relatable tales of how Carrie Symonds cheered Johnson up with pictures of their baby scan.
The Guardian did better. It carried the faces of some of the dead in a spread that looked like it might have been published the week after 9/11. But alongside the keening we need the questioning. Why did the government squander the two-week advantage the UK had over China, Italy and Spain? Why were mass gatherings, including the 250,000-strong Cheltenham Festival, allowed to continue? Why do some social care workers still not have the PPE they need to protect themselves and others? Why did we not immediately engage in mass testing – like Germany and South Korea – and, given we are still not hitting 20,000 tests a day, is there any realistic prospect of hitting the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month?
Some of these questions were set down in a list last week by Alastair Campbell, who is no great friend of lobby journalists. But his poacher-turned-gamekeeper status notwithstanding, Campbell is right. Health Secretary Matt Hancock and others are being allowed to wriggle and obfuscate and buck-pass on a daily basis. At Friday’s press briefing, Hancock refused to tell us how many NHS workers had died. Instead, he handed over to chief nursing officer Ruth May, who hummed and hawed and told us it would be inappropriate to answer. Later, the figure of 19 was provided, but quickly challenged on social media as excluding GPs and others. Hancock wasn’t aware of any link between these deaths and the lack of adequate PPE. Of course he wasn’t.
As journalists, we mustn’t let squeamishness over Johnson’s illness prevent us from holding the government to account. But this is also true of the Opposition. While Campbell was having a go at reporters in the press briefing, what was Sir Keir Starmer up to? Getting sidetracked by a campaign for NHS workers to get medals.
As well as insisting on clarity from the government, we must try to avoid buying into its myths. We have been sold the lie we are all in this together, but the crisis has only served to highlight our inequalities. Not only, as I have said before, because the least well-off are the most likely to be care workers, bus drivers, shop assistants and to suffer most from the privations of lockdown, but also because it has exposed the sheer entitlement of those in power. Charles, Catherine Calderwood, Tory minister Robert Jenrick, and Lord Alan Haworth. Princes, public officials, politicians and peers, who think the rules are for little people with little lives; and not for the likes of them.
Which brings me on to the #StayAtHome message. It’s vital. We must abide by it. Anyone who attends a house party or has a picnic in the park should be taking a long hard look at themselves. But still, we should resist the urge to turn into a nation of snitches, policing each other’s movements and shopping baskets like extras in The Lives Of Others. There is no logic to some of the rules. Why shouldn’t we pause for a second to take a photograph on a road with no-one on it? Most of us are navigating our way through difficult circumstances, and we don’t always know what to do for the best. Is it preferable to do a big shop less frequently, or a small shop every other day? These are quandaries we have to solve for ourselves.
How effectively the government has used the #StayAtHome message to shift the responsibility for the rising death toll from them to us. And how relieved they must be to see so many people turn against their neighbours instead of them. While our gaze is diverted, they are busy strategising for the inquiries that will follow, with rumours circulating that Johnson’s allies are preparing to blame the civil service for the country’s general lack of preparedness.
To continue the Sun’s religious theme, perhaps we will see an Easter miracle. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s illness will serve as his Road to Damascus moment. Perhaps he will emerge from his month-long recovery chastened, clear-eyed and determined to make up for past mistakes.
But just in case: let’s channel our wrath, be tolerant of one another and direct our scrutiny at those who ought to be held accountable.