The words of a doctor send a chill down the spine. “You didn’t expect to find yourself engulfed by scenes of bloody chaos where emergency services were completely out of their depth, ill equipped, and poorly serviced.”
They could have been written this weekend as the Covid-19 emergency took another turn for the worse. The author is Professor John Ashton, a vocal critic of the government’s policy during the Coronavirus pandemic. The 72-year-old former regional health director spent the early part of the year shouting from the rooftops about the necessity of an early lockdown, the importance of testing and the desperate need for personal protective equipment (PPE). No one at Whitehall was listening.
Ashton has been here before. His words were about Hillsborough and, on the 31st anniversary of the disaster today, the professor is appalled to see a more widespread catastrophe unfolding. There are many parallels today with the tragedy that caused the deaths of 96 people on the Leppings Lane terrace at Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest in 1989. Already politicians are attempting to reshape the narrative and manipulate the truth.
“The government got things badly wrong at the beginning [of the epidemic],” Ashton said. “There was a failure to take it seriously. They have now moved into another phase: Rewriting history at the same time as making it.
“They are rewriting it on a daily basis. It’s as near to lying as possible.”
Now, more than ever, it is important to remember the lessons of Hillsborough. The similarities are stark. The government are failing in their responsibility to the public in a similar manner to how the South Yorkshire Police let down football fans.
The authorities, who have not provided enough PPE for health workers, have suggested that the shortage is because hospital employees are misusing the essential apparatus. This is reminiscent of the way SYP and the government blamed supporters.
The lack of scrutiny by most of the media has echoes of the past. A number of news outlets are cheerleading for Boris Johnson and not asking crucial questions about the failure of his regime to minimise the risk to the general populace. Back in 1989 The Sun in particular spread outright lies about the behaviour of supporters and the actions of police. That tabloid, which is still reviled on Merseyside, was not alone in repeating slurs without any evidence. Accepting the party line was not good enough then and it is certainly not tolerable now.
No one has taken real responsibility for Hillsborough. The authorities are now setting the scene where the blame for this Covid-19 national disaster can be deflected.
There are big questions: why has Britain suffered so badly from Coronavirus when other countries like Germany and Ireland have avoided such devastation? Sport appears to have played a significant role in spreading the disease. The Cheltenham Festival went ahead over four days in March despite the growing crisis, bringing a quarter of a million people to the tightly packed racecourse. The same week that Spain was approaching a critical point in the pandemic 3,000 Atletico Madrid supporters travelled to Anfield for a Champions League knockout match. Why were these events allowed to happen?
Ashton’s experience was horrifying enough on that awful afternoon in Sheffield but what happened afterwards was Orwellian. The experienced doctor was in the stands above the Leppings Lane terraces and saw the carnage unfold in front of his eyes. He raced down to the back of the stadium and set up an impromptu triage station and tried to impose some sort of medical discipline on the mayhem. His observations should have formed the basis for a forensic investigation into the events of the day. Instead his views were dismissed and derided.
At the Taylor inquiry in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough, Ashton’s competence and integrity were impugned by establishment lawyers. Everything he said was proved right and many policemen on duty at the semi-final had provided similar evidence. Those police statements were altered – “corrected” – by senior officers to suit their version of events. The cover-up was well under way.
It would take until 2012’s Hillsborough Independent Panel and the second inquests two years later for the general public to realise the true extent of the whitewash. The vast majority of the information that many have found so shocking in the past decade was in the public domains as early as 1993. People like Ashton were dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists even though they were telling the demonstrable truth. This cannot be allowed to happen when the pandemic subsides. The foot-dragging over Grenfell is dismaying and does not bode well but that nightmare, like Hillsborough, happened to a relatively small group of people who were easily marginalised and demonised. Coronavirus is different. It can strike anywhere.
Nevertheless, Ashton sees those in a position of power wriggling out of accepting any culpability for their actions. “Nobody ever accepts responsibility in top jobs,” he continued. “They take the money and the knighthoods but never put their hands up for their mistakes.”
The anniversary of Hillsborough is always poignant. The families, survivors and wellwishers usually gather for a service of remembrance. This year’s was to be the final memorial held at Anfield. The lockdown means that there can be no congregation. The day of contemplation has to be spent in isolation. Covid-19 will be on many minds. Kenny Dalglish another of the Hillsborough heroes, has suffered a scare with the virus. On Wednesday the 96 will be mourned alongside those who have succumbed to the virus.
The pandemic is bringing fear and tragedy to numerous families across the country. There have been countless unnecessary fatalities.
This horror cannot be swept under the carpet like Hillsborough was for so long. If politicians have been responsible for avoidable deaths they must be held to account. After all, losing a job and a reputation is not much to endure when so many lives have been lost.
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