From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Pause, reflect, remember’

126,172 tea lights?

March 23rd

Today is the anniversary of the imposition of the first lockdown in the UK and we are being told that it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember.   By the official count, which is dutifully included in the BBC news-bulletins every day, 126,172 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.   Anyone trying to light 126,172 candles or tea lights in memory is likely to find the first one going out long before the last one has been lit.  The number of people whose death certificates indicate that they have died from Covid-related causes, is over 146,000.   Nobody has counted the number of people who might be still alive had they not wanted to avoid going anywhere near a potentially Covid-infected Accident and Emergency Department; had they been able to get to see – rather than merely talk to – a GP; or had their treatment for cancer or other diseases not had to be postponed or paused because the hospitals were full of Covid patients.

Researchers in the United States have come to the conclusion that every Covid-19 death leaves 8.9 grieving family members.[1]  Even making allowance for somewhat different family demographics, that statistic points towards the huge weight of grief the UK has to reflect on.   My own extended family, being white, middle-class, and not yet dependent on care-homes, has been lucky; all too many others have not.   So, rather than reflecting on the lives and deaths of family members and friends, as so many people will be doing today, reflection turns to causes and effects, to questions about what might have been.   Questions our government would very much rather leave for another day.

How different might it have been had we had Jacinda Ardern at the helm, with her common sense and compassion, instead of Boris Johnson who boasted about shaking Covid-19 patients’ hands and didn’t start taking the pandemic seriously until he had nearly died from it himself?  When it comes to quarantining, New Zealand has the signal advantage of being an island nation with complete control of its borders.  But so, of course, is Great Britain, which could have locked itself down nationally as well as domestically in a way the countries on the European mainland couldn’t.  If it were to be argued that New Zealand has the advantage of being miles from anywhere, whereas UK is inextricably linked to a continent not much more than twenty miles away, one might reflect that Covid-19 timed itself to arrive very shortly after the UK had supposedly cast off the shackles of its ties with the rest of Europe and become a sovereign island nation supposedly in full control of its own destiny.

Jacinda Ardern’s government’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay has no doubt been helped by her own practicality, untainted with Johnson’s compulsive ‘boosterism’, and by the absence of a significant cohort of libertarians on her back-benches motivated by commercial rather than public health interests.   New Zealand also had the advantage of not going into the Covid-19 pandemic suffering from a decade of ideologically driven austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment which had depleted the capacity of the National Health Service, most obviously by allowing stocks of PPE to dwindle and decay, and by discouraging the recruitment of NHS staff, most notably of nurses.  That same ideology then dictated that the success-critical Test and Trace system be kept out of the hands of public health and farmed out, at vast cost, to private sector companies that still, a year later, haven’t got on top of what is needed.

It is impossible to know how many of those 146,000 lives might have been saved had we had a serious and even half-competent Prime Minister, and a cabinet whose  qualification for membership extended beyond thinking that Brexit was a good idea.  It is equally impossible to know how many lives have been blighted by those deaths; how badly the lives of many of those who survived Covid-19 have been, and will continue to be, blighted by long Covid; how many people’s mental health has been damaged by repeated lockdowns; and how badly the nation’s education has been affected by a year of on-and-off home-schooling.  One thing we have not been short of over the past year is statistics.  One of the more striking ones to appear today came from the Health Foundation, which has calculated, on the basis that each victim lost an average of 10 years of life when they died, that a total of 1.5 million years – yes, years – of potential life has been lost to the UK as a result of the pandemic: 825,000 years for men, compared to 670,000 years for women.  Dr Jennifer Dixon, the CEO of the Health Foundation, fleshed out the bald statistics: ‘Ten years is quite a lot of Christmases that you might have had with your relative or friend.’[2]

There will be a great deal to reflect on as we stand on our doorsteps this evening holding lighted candles, as we have been requested to do.   There won’t be any banging of pots and pans this time, no clapping and cheering for the front-line workers.  Just silent reflection. 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2021/feb/22/covid-4-million-family-members-grieving-us-study-finds

[2]   https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-lockdown-deaths-health-nhs-b1820617.html

5 thoughts on “From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Pause, reflect, remember’

  1. Whilst agreeing with the initial sentiments of this piece, I do take issue when comparisons are made with New Zealand, irrespective of politics. Due to it’s position across the latitudes and the associated weather conditions, the small population (under 5m) as compared to the UK’s population of (at last count and excluding illegal immigrants that have successfully evaded the authorities) of 66 million and with New Zealand having a land mass at least 10% more than the UK, New Zealand is self sufficient in feeding its population. If the UK had closed all their borders in the way that New Zealand has, the shelves in the supermarkets would have been cleared within weeks. Whether we import food from Europe or the ROW, the sad fact it we have to import in order to survive and in doing so, are unable to totally close our borders. Granted, we could have stopped travellers, but when so many of the travellers were British returning home from holidays/work this is a near impossibly.. When comparing one country’s policies against another, all factors need to be taken into consideration and has not in this piece.
    Taking the argument further, by totally shutting out the world, has the population of New Zealand developed any sort of immunity? I would think not. However, if the UK had the population of New Zealand, every human would have been vaccinated several times over, whereas New Zealand only started their programme towards the end of February and it is expected to go through the year. They may be able to survive with constant lock down for that period of time, the UK cannot.
    My sympathies are not only for those who have lost their lives, whether through Covid or for another reason, but more so for those who have developed terminal illnesses and the total desperation they must be feeling from not been able to see a doctor face to face for a proper diagnosis and treatment. So terribly sad.

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  2. The point is well made that New Zealand is far closer to being self-sufficient where food is concerned than the UK is, but the lorry drivers going to and from the continent could have been subjected to regular testing, and other travellers, including those returning to UK from holidays abroad, could have been subjected to a rigorous quarantine regime as soon as the first lockdown was imposed. Even now, a year too late, quarantine requirements are still selective and patchy. Had the misnamed ‘NHS’ Test and Trace programme been made the responsibility of a properly resourced NHS in the first place, I have no doubt it would have been handled as effectively as the vaccine roll-out has been. If quarantine is working at its borders, the population of New Zealand doesn’t need to develop immunity prior to receiving the vaccine that will immunise it.

    Johnson, unlike Ardern, has shown himself, temperamentally and in terms of ability, to be wholly unsuited to leading a country through a major crisis, and has compounded his own, and this country’s, difficulties by short-sightedly restricting the pool of talent available to help him run the country to a limited, in more than one sense, group of devoted believers in Brexit, leaving a number of far more capable and experienced ex-Ministers on the back-benches. There was no intrinsic geographical reason why the UK should have had such an appalling death toll. So terribly sad, indeed.

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  3. A comment on FB…from the USA Peter Friberg. Thank-you, Dave, for a thoughtful, sober assessment; and Anne for a bit of a balance. Here in the US, just as we find some hope and confidence in the growing percentage of those who have gotten what you call ‘jabs’, the constant specter of gun violence continues- with another two mass murders in the last week. I believe 40,000 persons were killed by guns last year- because my good friends and neighbors insist on the right to have lethal weapons.

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  4. No – I hadn’t seen it. It is brilliant – thanks for drawing our attention to it. I’m not sure, though, that Docx, who obviously knows his Shakespeare, is doing justice to the extent to which Shakespeare’s Fools are sometimes given the role of the talkers of truth to power. As Docx says, ‘The clown was ever the perfect ambassador of meaninglessness’, but the Fool often conveys high meaning through his apparent meaninglessness. To that extent Johnson, whose relationship with the truth is always a very distant one, has more in common with the Clown.

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