The culture wars have made a very public appearance on our street for the first time in the 18 years we have lived here. One of our late twenties/early thirties neighbours set up a Melbourne Street Whattsapp group immediately after the lockdown for the benefit of those of us who couldn’t get out to do any shopping, and anyone on the street who needed any other help. After watching yesterday evening’s BBC Panorama programme on the government’s unspeakably negligent and incompetent approach to and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was so incensed that he posted a message on the group suggesting that when we go outside for the now ritual clapping of NHS and other ‘frontline’ workers at 8.00pm on Thursday evenings we should perhaps chant instead of clapping. The Panorama programme had made the point that the clapping served the useful purpose for the government of distracting from, and papering over, its culpability. Precisely what we should chant was, probably fortunately, left unspecified.
I made the mistake of responding, in vastly more restrained terms than I felt inclined to, suggesting that the clapping was clearly appreciated by the NHS workers and that, rather than chanting, other ways needed to be found to hold government to account for the deadly danger NHS staff are facing. Someone further up the road, to whom I will give the benefit of any doubt as to whether or not she had watched the programme by assuming she hadn’t, responded by saying that she agreed with me but added: ‘I also think the government is trying to do their best in exceptional circumstances.’ This brief exchange resulted in the rest of the evening being punctuated by a series of pings as my mobile phone alerted me to a flurry of Whatsapp responses. The stampede for the exit as members dropped out of the group because it had become ‘politicised’ was akin to someone having suddenly shouted ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre or nightclub.
The Panorama programme was definitively damning as it made it all too clear why the UK, which had the longest time of any country in Europe to prepare for the arrival of the pandemic as it made its progress Westward, is heading inexorably towards having the highest death toll on the continent. Among other things the programme highlighted were: the grossly negligent failure to stockpile adequate quantities of PPE in advance of a widely anticipated pandemic; the cynical downgrading of the formal stipulations about what was essential protective equipment when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough; the failure to maximize opportunities to acquire more; and the staggering incompetence whereby British offers of assistance with the manufacture of PPE were ignored by government, with the result that large quantities of the necessary materials ended up being exported, rather than being used to satisfy the desperate need here. The government is constantly trying to shift the blame for its failings onto ‘the science’ by parroting the assertion that it has always ‘followed the science’ in its response to the virus. What part of the science was it following when it committed that catalogue of deadly errors?
If that is the best the government can do, no matter how hard it is trying, it is blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t be the government. To add insult to fatal injury, they announced today that they will be paying £60,000 by way of compensation to the grieving families of the now over one hundred NHS and care workers who have died from Covid-19. So the lives of those who have died trying to save the victims of government negligence and incompetence are valued at significantly less than half the annual salary of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for many of those deaths. The insult was then compounded as they extended it to the NHS as whole with the announcement that the compensation payment would not disqualify the families from suing the NHS if they felt the deaths of their loved ones were the result of failings on the part of the NHS. That has to be the most jaw-droppingly blatant attempt to shift the blame yet. It goes without saying that it shouldn’t be the NHS that is sued in the present circumstances, it should be the Cabinet. But you can be 100% sure that the legislation around corporate manslaughter will have been framed to exclude that possibility. In the end, of course, it is the electorate that gets the government it deserves. Which probably takes us back to the number of people angrily removing themselves from a Whatsapp group as soon as anyone presumes to voice the slightest criticism of the motley gang of Brexiteer incapables who are responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in.