Margret Laird

The immediate aspect of the coronavirus pandemic which has assailed us since 2020 has been the striking contrast between the isolated and squeezed daily lives we have had to lead for fifteen months, and the immensity of theall-encompassing global pandemic which acts as a backcloth to our current lives.  As our normal social contacts shrank, in so many cases to virtually none, we were overwhelmed by news of the apocalyptic visitations of the virus on every country on earth. Television has remorselessly brought ushaunting pictures of death and grief; a rolling canvas of grim statistics, maps and data; and politicians and experts on podiums bombarding us daily with advice, updates, and rules of conduct. Uncertainty, fear and anxiety and loneliness have invaded our quiet rooms.

The first British victim was struck down on the 6th of March 2020. But where China and many European countries resorted immediately to lockdown in an attempt to control the virus, the British government hesitated and temporised, invoking the “herd immunity” theory, enjoining the public to isolate when symptoms were found and warning that major public events “might” have to be banned. Then, suddenly, on the 23rd of March, 2020, the Prime Minister warned that if people did not follow the rules, then the police would have the powers to enforce them.The following statement was issued “the people would be forbidden from doing anything unless legislation said, in terms, that they could.” We all know what police behaviour ensued at the peaceful vigil for the murdered Sarah Everard on 3rd of March, 2021on Clapham Common, and there have been numbers of incidents of police insensitivity.

The death rate of those suffering from coronavirus has been brutal. Confirmed casesof coronavirus in the UK have topped 4,000,000, and our death rate, the highest in Europe, at around 150,000. These figures represent disproportionate and appalling death rates in care homes, higher death rates amongst certain types of employment and groupings, and do not even take account of the long-term effects on those who have suffered from the disease, and survived.

Adverse outcomes from lockdown have affected us all in different ways. Suddenly, those aged over seventy,“the old”, were required to be kept in strict home quarantine to save the NHS and society from having to nurse them in cases of coronavirus. It was worse for school-age exam-takers, who see their work and diligence dissipated in a welter of hastily-conceived deadline on exams, college and university entry. Are students the long-term losers, with theirdelayed college and university places? What about schoolchildren deprived of the classroom, their friends, their teachers and – their learning? And how have exhausted working parents of schoolchildren managed to combine that work with home schooling? What are the effects on those in work of having to “work from home”, alone? What are the effects on those who are having to travel to work, masked, but crowded together on trains and buses.  Many of us are grandparents. They and their grand-children miss each other.  Last but not least, what about those suddenly without work – desperate measures by the chancellor have kept them afloat, but this has not been applicable to everyone, and in any case, has not been long-term. Businesses have struggled, and many have already lost the battle.

Through the fifteen months of the pandemic the NHS has performed heroically. We have watched them work themselves to a standstill in the service of public health. The case for a public health service, free at the point of delivery can never have been more powerfully put. “Clap for heroes” was wholeheartedly endorsed by the public in gratitude.  We all believe that the NHS heroes and heroines deserve a pay rise. So when the government announced a derisory one percent pay rise for NHS workers recently, it was greeted with universal disbelief and fury. A nurse who cared for Boris Johnson when he had coronavirus has resigned in protest – she speaks for everyone. No-one now mentions the hurried building of Nightingale hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic. They were left empty – for the simple reason that there are not enough medical and nursing staff to utilise them. We no longer clap for heroes every Thursday evening, not because we have forgotten those heroes, but clapping now seems a puny gesture in the face of that miserly one percent.

In contrast to the solid track record of the NHS, we have seen a vacillating government, hesitating too long to commit to lockdown, constantly changing tack, cancelling lockdown-lift dates at the last minute and providing confusing and misleading information regularly. We have watched valuable contracts on NHS matters be handed out, without scrutiny, to friends and associates of government ministers. The government, secured by their thumping 80-seat majority in parliament is still in a position to defer the reckoning that lies somewhere in the future.

The pandemic lockdown has, nonetheless, been crowned with the advent of safe vaccines. A world-wide co-operative and dedicated effort on behalf of doctors and scientists has produced viable vaccines and Britain has forged ahead in delivery to the public, not least because the health service has provided an efficient and prompt service to us, with the result thatas 2nd of June, 2021,  59.5% of the UK population has received at least one dose of a vaccination.

We are now going forward into a situation where we can associate outdoors and indoors under less restricted conditions via a government “road map”, where foreign travel to specific lists of safe countries is possible. The public mood has lightened, and many of us had a small taste of libertyin normal outing to pubs and restaurants last weekend.

But India announced its concerns about a coronavirus variant on the 24th of March. Yet it was not until the 23rd of April that the British Government, keen to secure a trade deal with India, got around to closing the UK borders to travellers from that country. During that critical month, thousands of people arrived in the UK from India. Scientists have expressed different views as to how transmissible the variant is, but we now know that cases of the Indian variant, named as a Delta variant, the most expensive name produced by the WHO in history- that WHO has hardly been any better than the touts of Trump when in office, have spread to 86 local authority areas in England, and that they have surged in Blackburn and Bolton.The government has opened the vaccination programme to those aged 36 and 37, seeking to accelerate the present rate of 500,000 jabs a day.

But there is a vast backlog of cases waiting for NHS treatment – the number is in the millions. Education for British children has been disrupted, exacerbating difficulties for poor children,

At this juncture, in Britain, where are we? We have accumulated serious, undone business. Firstly, we need to examine why our death toll was the highest in Europe –what was mishandled? Secondly, why was the bill on public gatherings rushed through without scrutiny or parliamentary debate. This was not democratic and it is vital to examine and rectify the processes whereby the police were handed such draconian powers. Thirdly, we must agree to fund the NHS appropriately, not least because there is a huge backlog of cases set aside because of coronavirus, and also because many people fear that a creeping privatisation of the NHS is already in hand. Fourthly, without fuss, we need to legislate for a proper emergency fund and equipment against any future pandemic or health crisis. (there was one once). These matters require formal, legislative investigations such as are essential to any working democracy.

The achievements of world scientists have given us viable vaccines. This builds on other historical triumphs over sickness and disease, the “Spanish flu” after the First World War, the eradication of smallpox by 1980continuingwork on eradicating tuberculosis by 2030 and further continuing work against diseases of all kinds. If coronavirus cannot be eradicated, we may have to learn to live with coronavirus in the same way as we live with flu. Thanks to science and scientists, we can do that.

Other ills – political, educational, social and economic–have been thrown up and highlighted by this pandemic. Can we solve them?