The technical word is, I think, a shit-show. That’s what we’ve been living through for the past ten months. It has been interesting. It has been messy. Oh, and it has been “world-beating”. World-beating, or nearly world-beating, in our death rates, infection rates and economic damage. More than 100,000 deaths so far. But hey, we “squashed the sombrero”, at least for a few days.
I’ve had a lovely pandemic. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve been living in a house with a garden. When the music stopped, or at least when the virus from the bat that jumped to the pangolin arrived on these shores, I was living with someone I loved, after spending most of my adult life living alone. Miraculously, and after some big rows about politics in the early weeks of lockdown, I still love him. I can’t say there’s a constant flow of conversation after more than 7000 hours in each other’s company, but that, I’ve discovered, is what TV is for. There is, it turns out, quite a lot to be said for spaghetti al pesto over Schitt’s Creek.
Sure, I miss friends and parties and dinners and theatre and cafes and restaurants and shops and art galleries and weekends away and conversations with people you can reach out and touch. I miss the sound of laughter and singing and eyes that sparkle across a room. I miss serendipitous encounters and unexpected conversations. I miss the buzz of city life. But I’ve been safe and well and as healthy as a constant stream of wine and crisps and snacks will allow. For me, the pandemic has pretty much been a picnic.
The tiny fly in the ointment is that I’m not a sociopath. Call me weird if you like, but it bothers me that we have a prime minister and a government who have seemed set on a course that would maximise the damage, the death toll and the distress for its citizens and ensure that the pain would go on for as long as possible. And so I have spent much of the past ten months, in my little cocoon, in my rural idyll, in a state of white hot, blind, burning, sleep-eviscerating rage.
It started, for me, in the green room at Sky News. I had just seen a front page for the next day’s newspaper stating that this tiny speck of RNA, invisible to the eye, was likely to cause about 500,000 deaths in the UK alone. I was on Sky News that night with someone who was, essentially, telling me not to make too much of a fuss, because it was just like flu. I didn’t want to tell him that I have lost every single member of my family. I know how bad one death can be. And then two, and then three, and then four. 500,000 deaths and people are talking about flu?
I sat in that green room and howled.
It soon became clear that our prime minister, and our government, were going to carry on talking about flu. If they could be bothered to engage with it at all, which at first they apparently couldn’t. Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings on the virus. When he finally agreed to address the nation, in front of a giant Union Jack, he told us that it would all be fine because “we have a fantastic health service” and that we just needed to stop shaking hands. He himself, he added, was “shaking hands continuously”, including, we would “be pleased to know”, on a recent trip to a hospital.
You know the rest of it. How we learnt, through Robert Peston, who is very close to Downing Street, that the government wanted us to “acquire ‘herd immunity’” to the new virus. We would wash our hands, sing happy birthday and “send Covid packing” in twelve weeks through sheer force of will. Pubs, bars, restaurants, concerts and race-courses would stay open and this would speed things up. And then someone saw some graphs and panicked, so we were told to stop going to the bars and restaurants that were still open. And then someone saw more graphs and panicked more and the country was told to “stay at home”.
Plenty of people couldn’t stay at home: people who worked in hospitals and care homes and in supermarkets and in schools and on trains and bin lorries and delivery vans and buses. And lots of these people got ill and quite a few of them died. Many of them died because they didn’t have proper protective clothing or equipment, but the government said it couldn’t be helped. People who were paid the minimum wage were expected to die for their country, or the virus, or the government. Some of them were clapped on Thursday nights, but the ones who were dead couldn’t hear it.
Our borders stayed open. We’re a “freedom-loving country” and it was more important than ever that we showed who we were on the global stage. And who we were, it turned out, was a bunch of middle-aged men who liked to make big promises and splash tax-payers’ billions on contracts to their friends.
As soon as the number of deaths dropped to a rate the NHS could safely handle, we were told it was our patriotic duty to “eat out to help out”. So we did our bit, and got the virus going again and were told that we’d be back to normal by Christmas. Then we were told that we wouldn’t exactly be back to normal, but it would be “inhuman” for people not to see each other, so we could all plan to mix with two other “households”. And then we were told that we could only do that in certain areas, and then we were told that schools would open, because they were “safe”, and then we were told that they wouldn’t open because, although the schools were fine, the people in them were a problem. And then we were told that we’d be back to normal by spring and then we were told that we wouldn’t.
And then we learnt that we were now the world leaders in infection and that our new “English variant” was doing a very good job of infecting other countries, too. And that we’d keep our borders open to allow as many new variants as possible to get in. We’ve got South African and Brazilian now! We don’t know that our vaccines will work on them, but we think they can be “tweaked”. And it will probably only take about nine months for each new “tweak” to get into our arms.
A Martian would say that it’s all very interesting. A Martian would also be interested to see that the government is currently planning to “relax” restrictions as soon as the “most vulnerable” have had their first jab, which will enable everyone else to be a giant petri-dish for the new variants. Kent sparkling, South African chilled or Brazilian Caipirinha? It’s party time!
About 10 per cent of people with Covid go on to develop long Covid, with long-term damage to organs and lungs. About 3.4 million have already had the virus, so that’s about 340,000 people in this county. When the government, in Matt Hancock’s words, decides to “cry freedom”, that figure will rise a lot. This, by the way, is what post-Covid lungs look like.
“There are many illnesses in the world,” said Hancock in an interview in The Telegraph last week. “We have to live our lives.” He was “ready for the fight”, he said, to “let the virus rip” among the under 50s. Long Covid here we come!
We could wait, of course. Now that we have vaccines, we could close our borders – properly, I mean, and not just by letting people get straight on a train and pretending they’ll quarantine – and get a proper “test and trace” system up and running, which allows people to protect other people without worrying how they’ll pay their bills or rent. We could actually aim to control the virus, so we could go to a bar without risking permanent damage to our health. That would be “fantastic”. That would put us in the league of countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia, countries that decided it wouldn’t be a great idea to play Russian roulette with their citizens’ lives.
The trouble is, we won’t.