April 21st. British readers will recall the carefully crafted address by the Queen on 5th April. It studiously avoided saying anything about the Government whose leader had so embarrassed her over the proroguing of Parliament last Autumn. Instead it concentrated on national character:
I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.
The question of whether we still have any right to take a national pride in the response to coronavirus has been thrown into relief by the revelations in the press over the weekend, particularly the 5,000-word piece in the Sunday Times.
The generalised ‘attributes of self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling’ remain valid. Indeed, they have proved stronger than the Government initially feared as it hesitated about imposing a lock-down. The street protests against restrictions on movement in the USA reported this week demonstrates what can happen in the absence of such resolve. That said, there are also worrying reports about a sudden growth of domestic abuse inside closed-down families which may yet disfigure the celebration of fellow-feeling.
In terms of public policy, however, shame is the more appropriate sentiment. Just ask yourself this question, of all the countries fighting the pandemic, which are seen as a model to be followed? South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany and some others. No-one is viewing the daily British news conferences for lessons about what they should be doing.
It is not as though we have no inherited strengths. We have an economy strong enough to withstand emergency bail-outs worth many billions of pounds. We have a sophisticated production and distribution system which has ensured, unlike many developing countries, that there is still food in the shops. We have a health service which, in contrast to Trump’s America, covers the whole population. And once we led the world in the specific field of pandemic resolution. No longer. According to the Sunday Times:
“Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.” [to judge from a TV interview I saw, that ‘source’ is Sir David King, a former Chief Scientific Officer]
The planning had atrophied. The funding had been cut. And once the crisis began, the wrong decisions were taken by a Cabinet whose members had been appointed solely on the basis of their attitude to Brexit. Its leader fulfilled all the expectations which his career had predicted:
“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
What we still have is a world-class scientific community (though universities, including Imperial, are going to be very hard hit by a combination of the pandemic and Brexit). It may yet be that those working on a vaccine at Oxford and elsewhere will come up with the solution that will save the world. Then, and only then, will we have a cause for national pride in how we responded.