Westminster View - Viewed from Isolation in March 2020
Mad March. It all began so normally. Boris bumbling, The Tramp in ranting self-denial, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders slugging it out for the privilege of being the next person to lose the Presidential race for the Democrats, Harry and Meghan`s last Royal Hurrah, The Brothers and Sisters squabbling, sorry campaigning, over the soul and future of the British Labour Party, non=negotiations of the post-Brexit futures of the UK and the EU and the French Foreign Minister threatening a new `fish war`, Priti still sticking in the Home Office, still waiting on decisions about Heathrow Runway Three and High Speed Two but there will be a 1.9 mile tunnel under Stonehenge, , more floods/no Boris, a border crisis between Greece and Turkey over released refugees as Erdogan nudges closer to Vlad Putin over Syria, former SNP Leader Alex Salmond goes on trial over sex-abuse charges, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivers his first budget under surreal circumstances, war is declared – on £2.5 billion of potholes in UK roads, The Prime Minister faces his first Commons rebellion in the voting lobbies, Cheltenham races on. And then there was Coronavirus or Covid 19 and the world, as we know it today, came to a shuddering halt.
It started a long way away, in a Chinese province, and if you believe the more lurid tabloids it was as a result of someone eating an animal, probably a dog, reared under appalling conditions in a cage. It reached Italy very quickly. Some – speculation is rife – say that was because Italian airlines cancelled all flight to China and so people returning to Lombardy and bringing the virus with them took backdoor routes home and lay low while the disease spread throughout Northern Italy. Whatever the truth, and we may never know, Covid 19 roared through the Northern States like wildfire. Attending a Council of Europe meeting in Paris we found ourselves in the presence of a Northern Italian colleague. Reporting this to our Whips as a matter of courtesy we were initially told to self-isolate for two weeks. This instruction was then revised but by sometime around the third week of the month I, while trying to Chair the Environment Bill up to the Easter Recess, found myself as an “extremely clinically vulnerable person” , given my marching orders and told to
Self-isolate for three months! Which is why I find myself sitting writing this in the isolation wing – well, a tiny conservatory on the back of a tiny cottage - that now serves as my office and wondering how and if and when someone will feel able to sound the `All Clear`. I fear we may be in for many months of this but more of that in a moment.
The Government is taking increasing amounts of stick for failing to be better prepared. Twenty-twenty hindsight is a wonderful thing and only historians will be able to tell us whether Mr. Johnson, flanked by highly-qualified medical advisers under whose guidance he has wisely sheltered, made the right calls at the right time. There was, certainly, a pandemic exercise in 2016 and it seems likely that insufficient heed was paid to the possibility of an NHS meltdown. Certainly the Secretary of State for Health found himself on the back foot as the NHS demanded Personal Protection Equipment that was either not up to the job or in the wrong place or not available. As a result Doctors and Nurses and Ancillary staff and care home workers have found themselves on the front line without adequate cover – literally. I do not blame Matt Hancock for that. Clearly it is easy to be wise after the event but nobody anticipated the global nightmare that we now face as, perhaps, we should have done.
We are told that `The German death rate is much lower than other European Countries because they have done more testing. The fact is that it was the Germans who invented the premier test, which they then sold to China, and I think it is fair to say that we, in the company of most European countries, have been behind that curve. It is also the sad fact that many self-testing solutions have been tried, tested themselves and to date found wanting but I would like to think that by mid-April the volume of testing and the availability of protective clothing will have caught up with need and demand. Matt Hancock`s well-earned reputation to date probably depends upon that.
The UK Government`s initial policy, based upon medical science and advice, was containment first. The theory was, and there are signs that this was proven right, that by delaying the trajectory of the spread of the disease we would flatten out the inevitable strain on our hospitals, buy time to acquire the thousands of ventilators of which there was a desperate shortage, take over private health facilities, bring back into service retired medical staff and convert existing large venues such as London`s ExCel Centre into super-hospitals. A dalliance with the concept of `herd immunity`, the process by which the young and fit catch and recover from the infection and allow it just to wither away, may have proved costly if not fatal. Certainly the Prime Minister` s bold proclamation that this could all be behind us in twelve weeks had to be back-pedalled like mad and now looks wildly optimistic. Prime Minister Johnson`s natural abhorrence of the `Nanny State` has been forced to submit to measures more draconian than even those adopted during the Second World War. Then, life was dangerous but the enemy, while banging at the door, was not on our shores and pubs and restaurants and hotels and dance halls were all open. Not so now. Starting from the middle of the month we have seen airlines grounded, railways nationalised, all leisure facilities and many parks and beaches closed , businesses and the self-employed brought to a potentially catastrophic shut down, schools closed to all but key workers` children, and life, as we know it, brought to a standstill as the Country has gone, effectively, into lockdown. Nobody is yet shouting “Turn out that light” but give it time!
We, individually, are fortunate. We at least have a garden in which grandchildren – we are all isolated together at present – can play and where dogs and humans can get fresh air and I can only begin to comprehend what it must be like for young families cooped up in flats without access to adequate play space. I also have my` isolation office` in which to work. That, though, brings its own frustrations. Over the past couple of weeks I have received , as have my colleagues, hundreds of requests for assistance with very few tools to do the job. I am aware, of course, that this column is read by people in Italy and France and Spain and Portugal and further afield where the pandemic that will reach a crescendo here shortly has already exacted a terrible toll in illness and human life. With all social activity on pause for the foreseeable future it is only modern technology – Skype and Face Time and the like – that is preventing many elderly people, cut off by distance and restriction on movement, from going stir-crazy. There are also , though, still tens of thousands of UK citizens stranded in far-flung places and unable to fly or drive home and we have spent much time trying to help repatriate them.
It is said that `The Germans (yes, them again!) got their people out` but the truth is rather more prosaic. It was not Governments but the fact that some airlines flew services for rather longer than our own before they were grounded that allowed some from other nations to get home. Having made many phone calls, however, to constituents marooned in Asia, Africa and South America as well as in Australia and New Zealand , I still feel that we must do more. That `more`, though, requires the co-operation of other Governments that have closed their country`s borders and do not want people moving in or out. And while some people feel abandoned (they are not) and frightened they may actually be safer where they are than coming back to face what we believe will be, here, the peak of the pandemic.
In addition to the repatriation issue we have also faced the need to try to secure basic foodstuffs for those in isolation at a time when demand upon commercial home deliveries has outstripped capacity and the supermarket shelves have been stripped bare. The sheer selfishness and greed of those panic – buying with no cause shames us as a nation. There must be thousands of cupboards and rooms and garages and garden sheds around the country stuffed full of lavatory paper, pasta and tins of baked beans and the irrational urge to hoard has meant that Health workers coming off shift, for example, have been reduced to tears because there has been no food left to buy. Happily, if that is a word we can use in this context, it looks as though storage space and cash have now run out and stocks are at last replenishing. Not, though, before a lot of food bought in greed and haste, has reached its `use-by` date and is now being thrown, unused, into garbage bins. I understand from friends in other European countries that by and large this has been a British madness but it has not been pretty.
On the credit side there has assembled a vast army of volunteers, working behind the `front line` of the NHS, that has been out shopping and collecting medicines and delivering for those that cannot fend or forage for themselves and as the crisis deepens that desire help appears to be strengthening rather than weakening. It goes without saying, I trust, that those on that front line working in our hospitals, and who now receive a round of applause from many doorsteps and windows at *pm on Thursday evenings, deserve unqualified thanks and praise. I am one of many Members of Parliament who have signed up to the call for provision to be put in place to ensure that the families of those who lose their lives in this cause – and sadly there will be more – are provided for at least as well as the dependants of those of our armed forces who give their lives on active service. At the end of the day we are w-engaged in a war and it t will, I fear, take many months but most if inevitably not all of us will get through this together.
Just before the shutters came down the last public event that I attended was a Small Business breakfast. The state of the Brexit negotiations, that was on everyone`s lips a month ago, did not get a mention until the very end of the meeting. I don`t think, though, that any of us at that time – before the lockdown – realised just how bad this was going to get. I know of many good, honest, hardworking people who have built up small companies or who are industriously self- employed who are seeing everything that they have worked for reduced to tatters. To say that some of these people are in tears if not literally suicidal is no exaggeration. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has on the basis of “whatever it takes” ,hocked the United Kingdom for generations to come while seeking to provide as many safety-nets for business and industry and employees as possible. This is done on the basis that once Britain opens for business again we will need all of these sectors to help us rebuild a shattered economy. This Chancellor has done himself many favours through his handling of the demand but even he has not been able to bail out all of those who are still trying to come to terms with a loss of any income or employment. He has also found it necessary to lean heavily upon the big banks that, while backed with Bank of England funding loaned at 0.25% and effectively underwritten by the taxpayer, have proved good at looking after their own interests but rather less adept at assisting small businesses.
Throughout all of this the Prime Minister, his pregnant girlfriend Carrie Symonds, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the Chief Medical Officer have all contracted Covid 19 and faced isolation. A speedy and full recovery is the least that we can wish them all.
On the other side of the Atlantic The Tramp has excelled himself in his capacity for bombast. In any sane country this would cost him every last hope of a second shot at the Presidency of the United States but sanity and American politics do not appear to be compatible. The Commander-in-Chief and Great Climate Change Denier has found a new cause. In January he said of Covid 19 that “We have it totally under control” and at the end of that month added that “We have a very little problem in this country at the moment”. This was followed by “We pretty much shut it down – it`s going to be fine” and 2The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA – we`re doing a great job of handling coronavirus” After the first deaths in the United States the President said “The Fake News Media and the Democratic Party is doing everything within its power to inflame the situation…..it will go away, just stay calm”. Having indicated that he wanted everyone to be back at work by Easter – there are now millions of unemployed in The States – The Tramp, faced with the reality of a centre of the storm in New York and the death toll escalating exponentially , declared that “I`ve always known that this was a real pandemic”. Will Americans fall for “The Chinese Virus” ploy and forget that their President has lied through his teeth and fiddled while The Big Apple burns? Probably yes.
Following the arrival of Dylan, the Johnsons` Jack Russell, Larry, the Downing Street favourite feline has tweeted “Do they make earplugs for cats”.
In the interests of joined-up Government and climate change it is reported that Lidl, the supermarket chain, will face a rates increase if it installs solar panels on its rooves.
The National Cyber Security Centre has warned that baby monitors are vulnerable to hackers with evil intent. Big Mother is Watching You.
Olympic and four times European gold medallist Donna Asher-Smith , the UK`s fastest woman on the track, now has a `Shero` Barbie doll lookalike as does the boxer Nicola Adams.
The Tramp is 73, Joe Biden is 77, Jeff Sanders and Michael Bloomberg are both 78. If the failed Democratic contender Pete Buttigieg runs again in eight elections time he will still be younger than all four of them. Time is on his side.
Asked by the magazine Grazia to name, for International Women`s Day, the five women who have most influenced his life the Prime Minister has listed Kate “Wuthering Heights” Bush, Munira Mirza from his London Mayoral team, Queen Boadicea, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl attacked by the Taliban and “Granny Butter”, his Grandmother. Not a female politician amongst them. How very Old Etonian.
And Sandi Toksvig and Bianca Jagger were busy addressing a Women’s` Day rally in Parliament Square while the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was busy being `no platformed` at Oxford University (Vice-Chancellor Lord Chris Patten).
Dame Hilary Mantel, talking of women, the Author of works related to Henry V111 and Thomas Cromwell, has described Meghan Markle as being `too good for a dull monarchy.` and when asked if Dominic Cummings was a modern Cromwell replied `No. Thomas Cromwell was far better dressed`.
The Skegness Mascot `The Jolly Fisherman` , based on a 1908 Rail travel poster, whose costume has been donned by volunteers to promote the seaside town over the years was in danger of falling foul of `elf `n safety on the grounds that the togs were `unhygienic`. Or to be blunt, they stank. Skeggy`s Councillors were minded to ditch the promotion but after a public outcry Jolly has been reprieved and the good burghers will pay the cleaning bill after all.
Spitting Image, the TV series that ran for 18 series between 1984 and 1996 is set to make a comeback. Roger Law, of Fluck and Law fame, has been commission by Britbox to make its first original series featuring, very possibly, Harry and Meghan, The Tramp and Melania, Dominic Cummings, the Duke of York Vladimir Putin and, no doubt a cast of `vegetables`.
Sign in a convenience store: For Sale. A free trip to New York with every £699. Toilet Roll.
The BBC`s Managing Director of Radio has said that during the lockdown we will be able to enjoy listening to a cast of frontline presenters like Libby Purves. Libby had her show axed by the BBC three years ago!
And former Government Whip, Working Imp and National Treasure Gyles Brandreth has given the secret of the Mousetrap away after 67 years in the West End. The show is closed for the duration of hostilities, of course but Brandreth has tweeted` It was the virus what done it`!
Javier Perez de Cuellar (100) the Peruvian Diplomat, was the Secretary General of the United Nations between 1882 and 1991. His term of office embraced the Falklands War, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Gulf War, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the end of the Iran/Iraq war. He was also influential in the release of the hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy.
Air Vice Marshall John Lawrence (99) was a driving force behind the creation of the Nimrod surveillance squadron.
Andree Melly (87) starred in “The Belles of St. Trinians” and, with Peter Cushing, in the 1960 Hammer film “The Brides of Dracula”. She participated in thirty-two episodes of “Hancock`s Half Hour” and was a regular on “Just a minute”. On the west End Stage she played in “The Mood is Blue”, “Boeing Boeing” and “The Killing of Sister George”. In 1958 in “A hot summer night” she engaged in a first inter-racial kiss .
Max Von Sydow (90) appeared in Bergmann`s “The Seventh Seal in 1957, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, “Hawaii”, “The Quiller Memorandum”, the 1973 film “The Exorcist” ”The Simpsons” “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones”. He also appeared in the TV production of “The diary of Anne Frank”
Michel Roux (78) founded La Gavroche restaurant in 1967 and earned his first Michelin Three Stars in 1982. The Waterside Inn at Bray gave him his second Michelin Three Stars in n1985. The man who put English restaurant on the map also opened the Boucherie Lamartine in Pimlico and was behind the Roux Brothers TV show in 1988. The former pastry cook from the British Embassy in Paris was awarded the OBE in 2004.
Betty Williams (76) co-founded the Northern Ireland Peace People with Mairead Corrigan in 1976 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.
Kenny Rogers (81) was known as The King of Country Music. His sale of 150 million records included seventy Top 40 singles including , Ruby, Don`t Take Your Love to Town and Lucille which in 1976 was Number One in twelve counties and sold five million copies worldwide .He performed regularly with Dolly Parton with whom he recoded Islands in the Stream, won many Grammys and was inducted into the Academy of Country Music.
Lord (Ted) Graham of Edmonton (94) was a Government Whip in the Commons under James Callaghan and an Opposition Whip in the Lords for seven years. He was the Labour and Co-Operative MP for Edmonton from 1974-1983, a stalwart of the `Keep Sunday Special` campaign and the first Member of Parliament to graduate from the Open University.
Lord (Tristram) Garel Jones (79) was a Tory `wet` who nevertheless survived as Deputy Chief Whip under Margaret Thatcher and the Chief Whip of the day, Tim Renton. He became the Minister for Europe and resigned from Government after the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. He was in fact Welsh but was brought up in Madrid and spoke fluent Spanish as well as Welsh and English. He was the UK Emissary to Argentina after the Falklands War and represented Watford, as seat that he won from Labour in 1979.
Julie Felix (81) was known as `Britain`s Leading Lady of Folk`. The former `Beatnik` had a weekly slot on “The Frost Report” and will be fondly remembered by children of all ages for “Going to the Zoo”.
Ulberto Uderzo (92) was the illustrator and latterly the sole author of Asterix the Gaul.
Terence McNally (81) the playwright, succumbed to Covid 19 complications. During the 1990s he won four Tony awards for his Broadway shows.
Joe Ashton (86) was a Labour Whip and for thirty-three years the Member of Parliament for Bassetlaw. As a journalist he wrote for the Sheffield Star, The Daily Star and The People.
And Lance Corporal Brodie Gillan (26) was a forces medic killed in a rocket attack in Iraq. There has only been one year since the ending of the Second World War in which a British Service man or woman has not been killed on active service.
Billy Connolly, The actor and comedian, has finally quit the stand-up circuit. `The Big Yin` was diagnosed with Parkinson`s Disease in 2013.