With increasing political populism seen at its apex in Brexit and amidst the consequence-free political lying, a round of applause is maybe what hope sounds like. Writes Andy Cowper.
The first rule of Political Lying Club is that nobody cares about political lying any more, until they do again.
Political lying has become consequence-free, most notably in the bonfire of the sanities that was the Brexit campaign. The latest big example is the government’s attempt to contend that it was unaware of EU plans to work jointly to buy more ventilators, and that an email informing the UK government of this potential joint endeavour had gone astray.
This line was initially contended by an unattributed ‘government spokesman’, and was repeated on the BBC’s Andrew Marr politics TV show by Cabinet secretary Michael Gove, claiming “there’s nothing we can’t do as an independent nation”, and that communications issues were at fault.
Mr Gove’s use of the ‘communications confusion’ excuse must remain, we are to presume, the government’s policy.
Unfortunately for the government, this EU press conference proves that it was clearly mentioned more than once in the EU health security committee meetings at which the UK was represented that the UK was entirely welcome to join any joint procurement for ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) during the transition period.
This is not a great time for informed people to have a lot of trust in the government. The New Statesman’s Harry Lambert picked up from outgoing chief marketing officer Dame Sally Davies’ comments at the 2016 World Innovation Health Summit (Lord Darzi’s project) about the outcome of that year’s ‘Exercise Cygnus’, showing that the UK’s shortage of ventilators would lead to high death rates, did not lead to amendments to the UK’s various pandemic respiratory disease contingency plans.
A reckoning postponed
We are coming into the period when this pandemic will sweep through the NHS like a tsunami. The system has done as much to prepare as best it has been able over the past fortnight, with some first-class joint working that we must hope can become part of the positive enduring legacy.
Now is not the time for hot anger about these stupid lies, nor about the mistakes in preparation and strategy that have been made in varying degrees of good faith and genuine scientific and methodological disagreement. Those must be issues for another day in the future.
But the first rule of Political Lying Club is that nobody cares about political lying any more, until they do again. And that day is coming.
When the Bristol Stool Chart meets the fan
In the immediate short term, we must deal with profound issues.
We know that there will be far more demand coming in than we can meet. This means that our clinical colleagues will be dealing with significant suffering and dying, and will be able to do very little about those things.
The toll on those people will be significant. It’s going to be essential to encourage and help them to look out for themselves and for each other. Listen for stress in people’s voices. Look for it in their eyes. Think intelligently about shift patterns: longer may be easier to administrate, but it may be less sustainable.
There is another huge issue about trust and valuing staff, in the form of PPE. The ongoing PPE availability and distribution problems are making front-line NHS staff feel dispensable. At any time, that would be grotesque. At this time, it is unforgivable.
There will be a reckoning for that mess, too. That day, too, is coming.
Right now, we need those clinical colleagues desperately. I cannot imagine a higher priority for managers than to ensure that they have a rapid response system in place to ensure that the PPE that we have now is properly distributed.
In normal times, I am deeply meh about NHS sentimentality. I don’t heart the NHS, any more than I have a crush on HMRC, or than I get wood for the motorway network (both of which are just as vital for our wellbeing in the long run). The reason I don’t heart the NHS is because I want to be able to think clearly about it:
I think it is an equitable and potentially efficient system to provide what I see as the non-negotiable of universal healthcare. The heart is a funny old muscle, and it doesn’t usually make me see things more clearly.
These are not normal times, and (despite my age making me find the ‘clap for carers’ hashtag funny), I was glad to go out and applaud at 8:00pm last Thursday night, and to hear my neighbours doing it for many streets around.
And maybe that is what hope sounds like, that applause.
We have divided ourselves greatly as a country: with increasing political populism, seen at its apex in Brexit; with gross inequality between the wealthiest and the least wealthy; with paying tax becoming an optional tip for the super-rich and monopolistic mega-corporates and offshore hedge funds alike; with the gig economy and foodbanks everywhere and zero hours contracts.
Now a round of applause is a small thing. It is also free: it did not cost us anything to do it. But sometimes, a thing like that applause is not just what it is: sometimes, a thing is a signal and a symbol.
It is also something that we did together. Most of us civilians cannot do much to genuinely help (apart from washing our hands, social distancing and staying home). Most of us civilians are scared by a health risk that we cannot see, and the consequent social and economic changes that we have not chosen.
Perhaps it has taken a global pandemic of respiratory disease to make us notice that what we ultimately have is our concern and care for each other. The NHS is both a product and a symbol of that care.
There would be a beautiful irony if this disease that forces us into physical social isolation also ultimately reunites us in agreement about what really matters. I do not know whether this can or will happen, but I hope that it may.