There he stood, outside Downing Street, performing his empty gesture of gratitude in the brief interlude between punting his lethal “herd immunity” strategy and contracting Covid-19 himself. It is an indictment of just how untrustworthy the current government is that many of us fleetingly wondered if his positive test was a stunt to make him more relatable and give the #Weareallinthistogether slogan greater weight.
Certainly, his allies lost no time in exploiting it. “This does make the point that it really doesn’t matter how high you are: the heir to the throne now has it, and the Prime Minister and others, doctors and nurses, right through society,“ said Iain Duncan Smith, the man who days earlier had rejected a proposal for a basic universal income during the pandemic on the basis that it would be a “disincentive to work”. It doesn’t matter how high you are. Or, it follows, how “low”. But it is easier to self-isolate in a big house than a small one, and with money than without, and it’s impossible to self-isolate if you have no house at all. We are all in this together, but some of us are more in it than others.
Johnson has been trading on ordinary people’s love for the NHS – while his party was systematically eroding it – ever since he slapped that £350 million a week lie on the side of his Brexit bus.
Only now our lives – and particularly the lives of frontline medical staff – are imperilled is the lack of the Tories’ own investment in this great symbol of British values laid bare, along with its arrogant First World sense of invincibility. Large-scale disasters, like floods and pandemics, are things that happen in developing countries – not once-great empires in the process of taking back control. Why should the UK bother to prepare?
And so it didn’t. On last week’s BBC Question Time – shortly after the national applause had taken place – editor-in-chief of the Lancet Richard Horton called our lack of preparedness a “national scandal”.
“We knew 11 weeks ago this was coming,” he said in a voice shaking with righteous anger, “but we wasted February – time when we could have acted, time when we could have ramped up testing, when we could have got PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] ready and disseminated, but we did not do it.
“We are putting our health workers – who we all just clapped – on the frontline without the armour they need to defend themselves.”
The stories emerging from London are terrifying. Before he went on, Horton asked health workers to share their experiences. “I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel protected,” said one. “When I was a country director in many conflict zones we had better preparedness,” said another.
We are all in this together, but Prince Charles, Johnson et al have been able to get tests while health workers have not. This has not only increased the worry for individual paramedics, nurses and doctors, but intensified staff shortages as more and more of them self-isolate just in case.
Acts of political sabotage lie at the heart of the chaos. We already knew about the damage caused by the cuts, privatisation and recruitment crises. But we are learning of further abrogations of duty: of a failure to follow expert advice on stockpiling eye protection or to join an emergency EU scheme to buy ventilators because we were no longer EU members and were determined to go our own way. (The government later changed its story and blamed it all on a communications mix-up.)
Johnson’s exceptionalism appears to be contagious. We have heard the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries say the World Health Organisation’s advice to test, test, test was aimed at poor countries, not those with an advanced healthcare system like the UK.
I am not an expert and – who knows – she might be right. But, set next to all the stories of under-provision we have heard from those with first-hand experience – and the images of stadiums and conference centres being turned into makeshift hospitals – her words did jar. Not to mention the fact that Germany – a country with a more advanced healthcare system than ours – is already testing 120,000 people a week and appears to be reaping the rewards, with fewer deaths than either the UK or France.
In any case, even as Harries was making this statement, plans were afoot to increase tests to 25,000 a day by mid-April, with NHS staff a priority. The NHS tests will start with critical care doctors and nurses followed by staff in emergency departments, paramedics and GPs. But the move is long overdue and we are making slow progress more generally too, with the number of patients being tested still falling far short of the promised 10,000 a day.
Here in Scotland, we are several weeks behind London in pandemic terms. As a result, the number of mortalities is still comparatively low – 40 at the time of writing. But no-one doubts there is worse to come.
Whether you want to blame the Scottish Government or the Westminster one, our health and social care system has been denuded, but what our politicians haven’t done is to support the clampdowns on immigration that would stop it functioning at all.
Compared with Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon has also been unflappable, frank, relatively consistent and though, broadly, decisions are being taken on a UK-wide basis through Cobra she appears to have been ahead of the curve on the need for measures such as the banning of public gatherings, social distancing and the closing down of nonessential construction sites.
Scotland has been having issues with PPE – with workers given facemasks which were past their expiry dates – but the Scottish Government now says it has an adequate supply and has taken over the distribution to health and social care workers.
What hasn’t been done here is the setting up of a national NHS volunteers scheme similar to the one in England which has seen 700,000 people offering their services, although individual health boards appear to have been recruiting on an ad hoc basis.
It is wonderful, of course, that so many people want to help, but it does add to the sense that – ever since David Cameron came up with the term “Big Society”, from food banks to the NHS, ordinary people have been expected to plug the gaps caused by government failings.
That’s fine for just now. At a time of such inordinate crisis, it should be all hands on deck. But when this is over – and we are assured at some point it will be over – we need a complete restructuring of society so that health workers and care workers and those keeping our supermarkets open are valued as the life-savers they are; and princes slightly less so.
No more austerity; no more talking about “low-skilled workers”; no more denigrating the immigrants who form much of the backbone of our country. We must not stand for it.