I am lying in bed this week with a stinking cold. Obviously I didn’t think it was a cold. We never do, now, do we? No hangover passes without my sticking various swabs up my nose to see if the sweats I am feeling are self-inflicted or a symptom of Covid-19. I guess we are lucky, eighteen months on, that we are at least able to test constantly, invading our sinuses with spiky swabs.
It wasn’t always like this, though, and this morning’s reading – the joint report by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee about how well the UK government managed the pandemic – is not making my sore head feel any better, describing the slow approach to social distancing rules and lockdowns as “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”. It states, further, that not locking down sooner was “the wrong policy”, and that it led to a higher initial death toll “than would have resulted from a more empathic early policy”.
If I was reading this report still raw from the bereavement of my nearest and dearest, I would have more than a sore head. I would have a broken heart. When I think back to those early weeks, when I was buying sympathy cards for my constituents in bulk online, and I remember the painful conversations with a widow who was too scared to see her children through her grief because she was sure she was going to infect and kill them, I want to scream at the cack-handed and deliberative nature of the government’s decision-making at that time.
Senior minister Steve Barclay’s refusal, this morning, to apologise to people who are grieving the loss of their family members was callous and protectionist to say the least. And that is the rub for me. Yes of course mistakes get made, and some things were handled better than others. No one would deny that – but the simple act of pushing away the chance to make an apology to tens of thousands of people who are hurting from loss, and doubling down about how ministers made the right decisions and “followed the science”, does not speak of a government that is ready to learn the lessons of the pandemic. I mourn our losses, but I am also worried about our future.
This report speaks of a problem with the testing regime, which left us exposed. It highlights, very much after the fact, what we were all screaming about at the time, in terms of what was happening in our care homes. We all knew that Covid-positive patients were being placed in care homes without tests. Instead of government ministers being defensive, it would be absolutely welcome if they came out and told us about how they will manage these things differently in the future.
One of the cases I handled was the death of a woman in her 40s. She had suffered from eating disorders and substance misuse issues, and for years before the pandemic hit I had been trying to get her adequate care, rehabilitation and treatment. I couldn’t, so she was weak to the oncoming wave. The report speaks of inequalities relating to race and disability that exacerbated the effects of the pandemic among these groups. It very much felt, at the time it was happening, and as these people’s representative, that the government just gave in to the fact that vulnerable people were going to die. There was a shrugging “Oh, well” vibe.
Instead of callous ministers refusing to apologise, the British public deserves better: we deserve a roadmap for the future that will tackle these inequalities that left so many people vulnerable. The government remains in quite a strong position politically, so ministers have the bandwidth to be grown up and open in the face of this report. Why oh why do they always choose to beat their chests while claiming world-beating status. We were world-beating in some respects – sadly we continue to push for top league positions in the numbers of cases and deaths.
The ministerial response to a frankly damning report was predictable. We are all meant to pretend that we are eternally happy optimists, and ignore the impending crises that are rolling down our streets. First it was Covid, then we took the worst economic hit out of all the G7 countries. Now we are meant to sing jolly jingoistic songs while inflation spirals, the cost of living surges, and businesses cant afford to put the gas on. Crisis after crisis, and no one in government with the guts to say that perhaps they need a new way of making decisions when we are hit by shocks, either global or national.
A terrifying pattern has formed, which is that if you say what I am saying now, Boris Johnson will call you a “Moaning Minnie”. It’s rubbish; even with my bad head I’m a natural optimist who loves a gag. I am just scared that, even in the face of such clearly written reality, the government doesn’t choose optimism – it chooses fantasy.
My head hurts.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
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