The sun is shining, the sky is blue and the birds are singing in the trees. It’s a lovely day to go and sit in a park, but if you do, you face arrest. You can’t go to work unless your work is “essential” and if you do you, you have to swallow the fear. The Queen has addressed the nation, for just the fifth time in 68 years. Oh, and our Prime Minister is in intensive care, fighting for his life.
This must be what war is like, when the world suddenly flips into something so alien that your mind does somersaults all the time, trying to catch up. At night, you sleep and wake and sleep again, and every time you wake you think this can’t be happening in this country, this can’t be true. And then you wake, as daylight finally streams through the curtains, and you switch on the news and you realise, with yet another punch to your stomach, that it is.
It’s nearly six weeks since I wrote my last blog, on the day the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock was still refusing to go on the Today programme, because the government thought a global pandemic was not a good enough reason to end a spat. A few days later, it changed its mind, because you can’t really carry on boycotting the national broadcaster when 67 million people’s lives are at risk.
It was another two weeks before the government started its daily press briefings and when it did the messages were mixed. Yes, this new virus could be lethal, but for most it would just be like flu. Yes, other countries were trying to contain it, but no, we weren’t. Yes, other countries were doing mass testing, but we had decided not to. Yes, we know the WHO are telling everyone they should “test, test, test”, but we think they’re wrong. We know other countries are going into lockdown, but we like freedom in this country and we’re not going to do anything draconian. Look at this graph. We’re going to “flatten the curve”. We’re going to “squash the sombrero”. The main thing to do is wash your hands.
I did look at the graph. I felt sick when I looked at the graph. That graph allowed for up to half a million deaths. In my last live appearance on Sky News, I lost my temper on air when my fellow guest implied that people were making rather a lot of fuss about not very much. In the break before the second round of paper reviewing, I sat in the green room and howled. The make-up artist had to sort out the mess on my face.
Our government’s strategy was now clear. We would, as our Prime Minister had suggested on a TV breakfast show, “take it on the chin”. We were going to develop what our chief scientific officer called “herd immunity”. An unnamed official told a journalist – yes, a journalist, not the House of Commons or the British people – that the plan would be to “shield” older and more vulnerable people for twelve weeks while allowing the virus, essentially, to “let rip”. But before that plan was carried out, the older and more vulnerable people could carry on going to the pub.
I stopped leaving the house for “non-essential” trips in early March. I’d seen the reports from Italy. I read a leaked report from an NHS consultant who said that patients over 65 were unlikely to be intubated if there was a shortage of ventilators. Which we already knew there was. My partner is 66. He looks much younger, but he is 66. I’ve waited a bloody long time to meet a lovely bloke. I lost my sister when I was 36. I lost my father when I was 38. I lost my mother three years ago, and my brother, suddenly, last year. That’s enough death, thanks very much. I don’t want to touch the wrong door knob and kill my partner, too. So I decided I would just have to stay in.
When I took my courage in my hands and went out to post a letter, I couldn’t believe the happy, smiling faces in the streets. “Don’t you understand?” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you realise what’s about to happen?”. I felt as if I was walking around in a disaster movie and everyone else was eating popcorn in front of a rom-com, waiting for the geeky guy to get the girl.
It was, to be honest, a relief when the government made its screeching U-turn and announced that schools would close. It pretended that this was just the next stage in the strategy, and that it had been planning to introduce tougher measures all along. It wasn’t. It was a completely different strategy. The original strategy, outlined in the Imperial College papers which seem to have been the government’s Bible, was one of “mitigation”. It’s one where you allow society to carry on pretty much as normal while “herd immunity” builds up. And accept that there will be an awful lot of deaths. A giant omelette, in fact, made up of a few hundred thousand broken eggs.
The government switched from “mitigation” to a policy of “suppression”, where you basically lock everyone up, except the workers needed to provide essential services, until a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found. Which could be 18 months, two years, or never.
The official line was that the government changed its policy when “the science changed”. The science did not change. The Imperial College modellers said that the “mitigation” strategy would probably lead to about 265,000 extra deaths. The story journalists were fed was that the government was horrified by this, and changed its mind. This can’t be true. The graphs they had presented before had suggested many more deaths. What changed their minds was the realisation that the NHS couldn’t cope. Intensive care units would collapse under the strain. Mortuaries would overflow. It would, in other words, be a PR disaster, and one no government could survive.
You have to feel sorry for the politicians. No one becomes an MP expecting to be in charge of a global pandemic. Perhaps they should, because governments are meant to prepare for such things, but ours certainly seems to have spent the first two months of it hoping it would just disappear.
And let’s be clear. All the options in a pandemic are terrible. A “mitigation” strategy, which you hope, but can’t guarantee, will lead to “herd immunity” comes at a horrific price. But so does “suppression”. When you put seventy million odd people on a form of house arrest, the results are not going to be pretty. Millions live in tiny flats with no outdoor space. Thousands are trapped with violent or abusive partners. Many are in serious poverty. Millions are trying to earn a living while being stuck at home with children who are missing out on their education at a key time. Millions are alone. And millions have lost their livelihoods or their jobs.
The government has offered the biggest bail-out in British peace-time history, but this is unlikely to stop mass unemployment and depression. The world is facing the worst depression since 1926. It might even be worse than 1926. This virus is going to ravage any country without an adequate healthcare system and the economic consequences alone will be on a scale we have never seen.
Who on earth would want to be a politician now?
And who would want to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a healthcare worker, fighting daily, gruelling battles without the proper equipment to protect you? Who would want to be a bus driver, a delivery driver, a supermarket worker, a refuse collector? Nine bus drivers have already died from the virus. It’s not even clear if they’re counting the nurses and the care workers.
Most NHS workers still can’t get a test. There are half a million frontline workers in the NHS. Only a few thousand have been tested. Most get home from work and have no idea whether that goodnight kiss will literally prove to be the kiss of death.
I don’t doubt that politicians are now trying to do their best. But it’s just a fact that we live in a country that has been unable to protect tens of thousands of workers who have risked their lives to save the lives of others. Our government is scrambling to catch up, on gloves, on tests, on ventilators, on hand sanitiser, on masks. It will be too late for some, but not too late for others.
We are just at the start.
I’ve heard quite a few people speak as if this will be over in weeks. I feel as if I am waving to them from another planet. I don’t know which is worse. To think everything will soon be fine and gradually face up to the sinking, dawning realisation that it won’t. Or to know it will be very bad, for a very long time, and try to adjust.
No prizes for guessing which group I fall in. But when you’ve lost every single member of your family, you are probably a bit less casual about risk.
There will be a way out of this. It may be after the virus has swept through the global population, killing tens of millions. It may be through mass testing, smart technology and the kind of surveillance western democracies have never wanted to stomach. It may be a vaccine. Please God may there be a vaccine. It will be something, but it won’t be soon.
In the meantime, where do we find our hope?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find it in the courage of our key workers, risking their lives for others every day. I find it in the dogged persistence of the scientists desperately seeking a treatment or a vaccine. I find it in the IT workers testing and developing apps that can monitor symptoms, trace contacts and offer alerts. I find it in the resourcefulness of my friend’s husband, Andrew Farmery, who helped to design a ventilator in a week. (I wrote about it here, in The Times.)
I find it in the compassion and kindness that has burst up in every community in the land. Friends offering to shop for neighbours. Volunteers offering to drive people to hospital appointments. Therapists offering free counselling. I have also been trying to do what I can without leaving the house and that makes me feel part of a giant army, pooling resources for the fight of our lives.
I cried when I heard that Boris Johnson was in intensive care. I don’t want anyone to suffer from this horrible disease and I don’t want anyone to die. I cried when I read my friend Grant Feller’s magnificent piece in the Sunday Times about his father, who died of coronavirus last weekend. Grant couldn’t be with him to hold his hand, or say goodbye.
I seem to cry a lot at the moment. But I also cry at the beauty of a flower, or a bird singing, or when the sun bursts through the clouds. And I cried when I heard the words of our lovely Queen, who first addressed the nation in World War Two when she was fourteen. “Better days will return,” she said.
One day, they will.