From John in Brighton: The Last Post

31 December.

As this annus horribilis draws to a close so too by definition does the Covid 2020 diary and unless the pandemic shows a major change of course I anticipate this being my final contribution. Covid is ubiquitous and we have all been profoundly affected in different ways and have varied memories of the year. Herewith a few of mine.

The bellwether tinkled in early February and arguably the country’s first case was a businessman from my patch in Hove who acquired the virus in Singapore and transiently it felt good – our local NHS was praised for their handling of the case. Positive feedback to my erstwhile colleagues and hopefully that’s the end of it I thought…..if only. 

The pandemic has brought the very best out of people as communities and individuals have gone out of their way to provide food and money to those in need. To counteract the misery of loneliness strangers would befriend or shop for the isolated and vulnerable. And it was fascinating to me to see how factories and businesses could change course – aerospace producers transmogrified overnight to deliver face masks and booze distillers poured out bottles of hand sanitiser. Boris Johnson chose VE day in May to summon “wartime spirit” and the country responded in spades. And it was a WW2 survivor Captain Tom – sorry Sir Captain – who stole the limelight marching with his walking frame to raise money for the NHS. Target one grand, result £33 million which is quite incredible – an unprecedented response to an individual fundraiser I’d suggest. Wish I’d thought of that – he’s got Christmas in Barbados and Route 66 next!

But sadly the less positive side of human nature also declared itself. The selfishness that is panic-buying from paracetamol to toilet rolls to food and the powerful clip of exhausted and tearful intensive care nurse Dawn Bilborough has stayed with me and may have concentrated a few minds.  Back in March she ended her shift with a visit for food at her local supermarket only to find the shelves matched Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Then more recently are reports of fraudulent workers claiming furlough payments despite being active in employment we can but hope that there’s the odd new year shock as HMRC attempt to track the culprits. 

Thursday evenings, noted for Top of the Pops in my youth and more recently Question Time, became Clap for the NHS night. Covid shines a light on the amazing dedication and skills that are sometimes taken for granted but perhaps will be acknowledged a little more henceforth. But equally we saw how another band of dedicated workers went the extra mile or more in care homes up and down the land even to the point of leaving their families for days on end to minimise the risk to residents. A flurry of deaths at the care home just round the corner from me hit the TV news and such a stark reminder helps to focus safety measures. Seriously underappreciated and underpaid let’s hope that this skilled and caring group will now receive the recognition and reward that they deserve. Call me cynical but I fear not.

No government in living memory has had to confront a pandemic such as this and deserve some slack …. but nevertheless there must be questions asked over some of the decisions. I could double the length of the blog but instead will select my cardinal cock-up – cronyism. The flaw in Michael Gove denouncing experts was clear to see in appointing party donor Baroness Dido Harding to lead Test and Trace when she has no background in healthcare whilst there are public health doctors up and down the land chasing infections, contacts and advising on management. And we wonder why it was a shambles? Not only was T&T key to cutting infections and deaths but the ensuing imbroglio served to further undermine public confidence.

In amongst the doom and gloom were sporadic moments that made me smile. The cartoonist’s gift horse with Dominic Cummings mistaking Barnard Castle for Specsavers and more specifically watching him squirm as he sat in the Rose Garden trying to exonerate himself – in most peoples’ eyes unsuccessfully. Just this morning I added a coda to my giggles hearing that Dom was invited to turn on the Barnard Castle Christmas lights …..but declined. Then there was the occasion Andrew Marr interviewed Oxford vaccine pundit Sarah Gilbert and concluded “professors give you such clear answers” which in reality applies to most scientists and medics – a snigger as I contrasted the evasive, duplicitous bluster that he gets from many politicians who ultimately have command control but not the responsibility of front-line workers in all the public services. Then there was Matt Hancock suggesting that Premiership footballers should donate from their inflated salaries – which many did incidentally – but his pleas paled against Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed children adequately which triggered one of the Government’s many U-turns. Probably the side-splitter was Donald Trump proposing we inject bleach and especially the look on the medic’s face as Trump turned to him for support.

Word and paradox of the year? For the former mine would be unprecedented which we’d hear often several times each day as the pandemic gripped the World. And the latter is all but a double-paradox – prior to last year the question was whether, despite our potentially being more connected than ever, we were in reality feeling more isolated. Two key factors are families moving geographically further apart and increasing use of social media to communicate as opposed to face-to-face meeting. But this year where would we have been without Zoom and Face Time?  My lips are coated in the crumbs of humble pie as I acknowledge that social media and technology have their merits. And online bridge (along with the bicycle) has been a mainstay of preserving sanity as a shielder in my personal Colditz with the offspring ensuring strict adherence.

Is there any silver lining to the pandemic? If we seek it out and act then I’d suggest yes. To borrow a bit of football VAR demotic then there is one that is “clear and obvious”. The good deeds and community spirit was heart-warming – not the royalty, rich and famous but of Tom, Dick and Harry and their female counterparts. Hopefully this can be sustained. A second is more subtle and refers to the relationship between the human species and the rest of the animal kingdom. There is strong evidence that the corona virus of Covid was acquired from an animal with bats the top suspect and possibly via an intermediary host. Other serious virus infections have been acquired from animals – HIV probably from chimpanzees as bushmeat in Africa, Ebola possibly in the same way and for SARS the virus (another corona) was also possibly from bats. The Covid variant may more specifically have entered humans via the wet markets in Wuhan. Spending more time out of doors we learnt to enjoy the natural world much more but equally we need to respect it – reviewing the way we farm, manage and market our animals may prevent a new virus in the future. Conflate this with addressing global warming and our descendants will be forever grateful. 

As far as I recall I didn’t personally know any of the 72,548 UK deaths due to Covid but that doesn’t preclude a feeling of sorrow for they and their families. May they find peace in the sweet bye and bye. But someone very close to me died at the end of November and the collateral damage of Covid has been acutely felt as there was very little opportunity for close interpersonal contact over the last year which is when most needed as a terminal illness insidiously progresses. Having lost a hard-fought battle it seems apt, despite the absence of a military link, to dedicate this Last Post to Chris…

Ending on a positive note approval for the Oxford vaccine is announced this morning. Let’s hope for annus mirabillis in 2021. It surely can’t be any worse…. lingering virus, Brexit, can it?

If this does prove to be my final waffle then let me thank Brenda and Anne for the opportunity to share some thoughts and occasionally vent my spleen.