SubScribe: 2020 Google+

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Double speak and double standards

They are playing us for fools.

They said we were prepared for the coronavirus. That we had “fantastic, world-beating” testing; that the NHS was fully equipped and ready.

Then the bug arrived. And it turned out that we’d sold all the fantastic equipment abroad or run it down in austerity.

They told us not to worry. We must wash our hands, but apart from that, it should be “business as usual”. Shaking hands – even with people treating virus patients – was just fine.

But, just in case, they put out an appeal for ventilators (having "missed the email" about joining a European procurement programme. Maybe, post-Brexit, anything from the EU goes to spam). Ventilator manufacturers and suppliers put up their hands, but they didn't return the calls. Maybe a “patriotic” vacuum cleaner tycoon with a Singapore HQ could help? Or maybe not.

The World Health Organisation urged every country to “test, test, test”. So at that very moment, we stopped. Because “the science” said so. Except it didn't; we simply didn't have the capacity to carry out the tests. Because they had ignored offers from university research labs up and down the land and instead relied on friends in private industry.

It didn't matter, though, because there was a “game-changer” antibody test round the corner that would check whether healthy people had ever been ill. That, they said, would be far more effective in this battle/war against our invisible invader/enemy/foe than a system to check whether ill people had covid and, if so, who else they might have infected. That was more than two months ago. They are still promising both.

Then they toyed with the idea that it would a good thing if more than half the country became ill because that might stop them becoming ill later. Then they denied ever thinking such a thing.

People started dying. But they had "underlying health conditions", were very elderly and "probably would have died soon anyway". There was still not much to worry about. Most people would get only "very mild" symptoms.

While China, South Korea and New Zealand limited movement - and their death tolls - the British way was to keep calm and carry on. It seemed that "they" valued “liberty” and “freedom” over life. The liberty to watch football in Liverpool in the company of fans from covid-riven Spain; the freedom to travel from across the country to bet on horses jumping over fences in Cheltenham.

Everything would be fine. We just needed to wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday – or, if you were Jacob Rees-Mogg, the National Anthem.

People started dying in larger numbers. Including younger, healthier people. And it didn't look so fine. So they told us to make only essential journeys and not to visit or even isolate in our holiday homes - apparently without realising that millions of families don’t have a second bedroom, let alone a second home. So we went to the seaside instead and created essential traffic jams all the way to Cornwall, the Lakes and the Peak District.

Tougher measures had to follow. Schools were to close. Pubs could stay open until midnight, but customers were urged, pleeeeease, to forgo the "Englishman's inalienable right" to enter them one last time. Funnily enough, the advice was again disregarded.

Finally, they told us all to stay indoors, full stop. The Queen was enlisted to tell us we were all in it together and - in keeping with the favoured wartime motif - to echo Vera Lynn’s promise that we would meet again.

A week later, a cabinet minister was caught jaunting to his second home. Was he sacked? Did he resign? No. He was wheeled out to speak for the Government at the Downing Street briefing that very day..

There were mumblings about a lack of hospital equipment, and Michael Gove promised on national television that “thousands” of ventilators would start arriving the following week. A few turned up on time. Have the rest ever surfaced? Who knows?

Soldiers built pop-up hospitals in exhibition centres, stadiums, airports. Look at our Great British heroes, achieving so much in so little time. Anything Wuhan can do, we can do too. Except protect lives. But there were no extra nurses or doctors to work in the new hospitals, so they couldn’t take any patients and were mothballed.

And still people died. But the only ones they were counting were those who had gone to hospital and had been tested – while alive - to see if they really had the virus. And they still weren’t doing that many tests. So the numbers weren’t too frightening. Anyway, everyone was too busy praying for the Prime Minister, who was in intensive care "fighting for his life".

Even when the death toll hit 1,000 a day, there were reasons for rejoicing: Boris was safely back at Chequers with Carrie and an old man called Captain Tom had raised a million pounds for the NHS by walking round his garden, the last lap witnessed and saluted by a military guard of honour.

Doctors and nurses begged to be tested because they couldn’t work if they had a sniffle, even if it wasn't the dreaded Covid. Who was to know?

"They" promised that testing would be “ramped up”. It wasn’t. But they ostentatiously clapped for carers on Thursdays.

Doctors and nurses begged for protective equipment so that they could do their jobs safely. "They" said they'd bought billions of "items" (a single glove counting as an "item"). There was plenty to go round - "if used properly". And they clapped on Thursdays.

Doctors and nurses started dying. "They" paused for a minute’s silence, then carried on telling us how wonderful the country and its heroes were. Especially Captain Tom, whose reward for a walk that had raised £10m, then £20m, then £30m, was to “virtually” open one of the ghost Nightingale hospitals.

They promised again and again that testing would be ramped up – to 100,000 day by the end of April. A target “smashed” by sending 40,000 in the post (who knows if they arrived, were conducted properly or ever processed) and 30,000 or so to university labs for research purposes.

Hidden away from all of this, old people were dying by the dozen in care homes all over the country. But they weren’t counted. Was that because they didn’t count? Hadn’t that genius pulling the strings of government expressed the sentiment that if a few old people died, so be it?
Hadn't over-60s been warned that if they fell ill they would be at the back of the queue for a ventilator? Hadn't over-85s been asked not to go to hospital because they might want to avoid "being a burden on the NHS" and "dying alone"? Hadn't over-90s been telephoned by their GPs asking them to sign DNR forms - and been overruled when they declined?

One old person, however, was to be venerated above all others. Captain Tom, now the proud owner of an England Test cricket cap, was promoted to colonel for his 100th birthday.

Carers pleaded for protective equipment, but there was none to be had, because the rest of the world had gone to market in January while they were worrying about bongs for Brexit, and the limited supplies were needed for the NHS heroes. Never let it be said that they weren't imaginative in trying to make up the shortfall: they bought some gowns from a Turkish T-shirt salesman, but they weren't up to standard, and the Daily Mail helped out by flying in a few bits and pieces amid great fanfare.

At last they started counting everyone whose death certificate included the word Covid. And even after they’d counted them in, there were still 10,000 more deaths this spring than last that they couldn’t explain.

But no one should think that they didn’t care about the aged dying: "Lockdown started for them before the general population". Had it? Other than the blanket order for over-70s to shut themselves away for 12 weeks?

They’d thrown a “protective ring” around care homes “from the outset”. By block-booking 160,000 places to free up hospital beds? Great idea, if only they’d tested the patients before discharging them.

Families may have been barred from visiting care home residents, but the carers themselves were coming and going with not a test or a bit of PPE in sight.

Never mind. We were soon rejoicing again because Carrie had had a baby.

Yet the natives were still restless, stuck indoors, home-schooling their kids and Zooming. So "they" let us visit garden centres – though not for tea and cake. The Queen was rolled out again for the VE Day celebrations – not commemorations? And they knighted Captain Tom. For walking round his garden.

He ended up raising £39m, against an original target of £1,000. Amazing. Would he have been honoured for the £1,000? The actual walking would have taken no less effort, his personal achievement no smaller. Of course not.

The difference was a PR-savvy daughter and a government/country desperate for something joyous.

We needed it. We now have the highest death toll in bald numbers in Europe and, last week, the highest per capita in the world. But, having spent seven weeks proclaiming our “success” in combating the virus, they suddenly declared international comparisons "unhelpful" once we’d claimed the European championship.

The scientist whose research prompted the lockdown was caught having a visit from his lover in breach of the rules; a man who worked on the SAGE committee for nothing. They got rid of him pronto.

The man who effectively runs the country - and probably wrote the rules - was caught driving with his wife and son 260 miles to isolate at his parents’ country farm when both adults thought they had Covid. "They" clung to him like ivy to a willow tree. For he was all they had. Without him, they'd be even more clueless.

These were, they said, exceptional circumstances. Because who would care for the boy if both were ill? As though no other parents in the country had faced such a dilemma over the past two months. He was, they said, right to follow his instincts as a father. As though no other father in the land ever gave a thought to the care of his child or set aside his paternal instincts in order to obey the rules as most of us understood them.

It was reasonable, they said, for a man to drive 30 miles to a beauty spot when his vision was “weird” to test whether he could see well enough to drive back to London. On Easter Sunday, his wife’s birthday, or Day 15 as he pointedly called it, in the full knowledge that infected households are supposed to isolate for 14 days.

So reasonable that Michael Gove asserted on LBC that he, too, “on occasion” had driven to test his eyesight.

So reasonable that a succession of Cabinet ministers dutifully and desperately tweeted in unison that it was so - unaware or untroubled that their arrogant corvid tone jarred with the nation's Covid ear.

To take our minds - or rather media minds - off Cummings, they launched the "track and trace" programme early - but it didn't work - and upped testing capacity to 200,000 - but didn't actually do that many. On the back of these "advances", they started doling out daily treats, patronisingly aimed at what they thought the proles wanted: promises of pubs re-opening, horses racing again. The Premiership helpfully announced that the season would soon resume.

The supportive papers duly obliged with the good news non-Dom headlines, but for once the people were not convinced.

"See friends and family from Monday," they said on Thursday. But please not over the coming sunny weekend (the last weekend before many go back to school or work), they added on Friday - knowing full well that we wouldn’t listen to that bit.

Having declared for months that they were “following the science”, they defied the scientists to tempt us with goodies as dangerous as anything Snow White, Hansel or Gretel might be offered in the woods. “Go outside”, they told the vulnerable. By their own measures, the infection rate was still at "level 4", yet - to save Cummings - lockdown was being eased as though it were at level 1, which was supposed to be when the greatest risk had passed and a vaccine was available.

People are dying. The economy is wrecked. We’re heading for a no-deal Brexit precipice. And still they use words like “fantastic” and “world-beating”. Don't they understand that this isn't a competition; we don't want to beat the world. We just want our families to be kept safe and to be able to hold our Mum's hand as she dies.

Instead we’re living in an Orwellian dystopia "led" by an absentee figurehead prime minister of Churchillian delusion who signed up for the glory, not the gory. A man devoid of integrity, insight and ideas; a man totally lacking the appetite, application or ability to perform the job attached to the title he craved; a man who thinks charging immigrant health workers extra for the service they provide - whether they use it or not - is the "right thing to do".

A world where three-word slogans masquerade as policy. A world where clapping on Thursdays and feting 100-year-olds who see the NHS as a charity case (another embarrassing blip and Captain Tom will be in the Lords) have become a substitute for paying and equipping health staff properly. A world where they fly the Union Flag, publish photos of babies, dogs and princesses, and get the Queen to talk to the nation from time to time. In the hope that we won’t notice the rest.

They are playing us for fools.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

That Downing Street walkout

Three cheers for Lee Cain and his clumsy Downing Street rug apartheid.
Two cheers for the political journalists who walked out in sympathy with those on the "wrong" side of the mat.
One cheer for the Tory loyalists who remonstrated in print, on radio and on Twitter this morning.

Why three cheers for Cain, the villain of the piece?
Because the Prime Minister's communications director's crassness finally prodded a dozing mainstream media into action, exposing to a wider public both Boris Johnson's chronic accountability-dodging and the way the hand-in-glove political lobby system can be manipulated to control what information reaches the people.

Why only two cheers for Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston et al?
Because while their protest is welcome, it is also late. Because those on the "right" side of the rug have been far too cosy to Mr Johnson and his chief of staff Dominic Cummings; tweeting, broadcasting and printing "Boris says" stories - essentially propaganda shared in private "briefings" - without the most basic checks. Remember the Matt Hancock aide who was "assaulted" by "Labour activists" on a visit to a hospital where a child patient was photographed lying on the floor? Except he wasn’t, he walked into a cyclist’s waving hand.
The Sunday Telegraph was at it again only this weekend: Boris was "privately furious" because the EU was reneging on its offer of a Canada-style Brexit trade deal. Except it wasn't, as the most cursory glance at the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration the Prime Minister so boastfully negotiated and signed would have told both briefer and briefed.

Why only one cheer for Stephen Glover in the Mail, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph, the Times and Mail leader writers, the Julia Hartley Brewers?
They are absolutely right that the Government should not impede journalists, sympathetic or hostile, in their task of scrutinising the executive and explaining to their audiences what policies mean to them. Right to point out that there would be uproar if Jeremy Corbyn's team tried such a stunt. But what took them so long?

Boris Johnson has been refusing to answer to anyone but the softest audience ever since he put himself up for the Tory leadership. He holds "press conferences" for children, but shirks real press conferences with real journalists. And when he can't avoid them, he can, Trump-like, choose which “friendly” publications are allowed to pose their questions.
He holds "People's Question Times" on Facebook, where, as Deacon pointed out this morning, he is quizzed on such vital issues as what shampoo he uses. But in forcing through the biggest change to the country in a generation, he swerved real Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons (only three appearances in his first 20 weeks in office).
He sits on Holly and Phil's sofa, but not Andrew Neil's black chair. 
And all the time he is flooding social media timelines with videos where he can speak without interruption or challenge.

During the election campaign Pippa Crerar of the Mirror - one of those on the wrong side of the rug on Monday - was refused a place on the Tory battlebus. Did other journalists covering Johnson's journey disembark in solidarity? Nope. Because that was "party" business, rather than "government" business? Even though it was the same team pushing the same agenda?
One of the reasons given for denying her access to David Frost's Brexit wisdom this week was that she wasn't invited. A Times journalist was apparently also barred, because he or she wasn't the one who had been asked to the party. "We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want," said Cain, who accused those not on the approved list of "barging in".
Now there's a thing. One of the occasions that Johnson chose not to be put on the spot was Channel 4's pre-election climate change debate. As you may recall, he and Nigel Farage were represented by ice sculptures. There was a bit of barging in that day, too. Michael Gove and Johnson's father Stanley turned up, uninvited. Gove said he wanted to appear on the programme and was told he couldn't; the event was for party leaders only. Rather as Monday's invitation was for political editors only.  (Bear in mind, the C4 debate was open to all party leaders, the press briefing only to selected political editors.) Sauce. Goose. Gander?
And how did Mr Johnson's party respond? By complaining to Ofcom and threatening Channel 4's licence. Yet the press corps' justifiable complaint that a briefing from a politically neutral civil servant was being politicised is written off as snowflakery; the exclusion of some reporters justified, according to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, "because the public backs the Prime Minister". So they should get their information only from publications that generally support him? 

The Prime Minister and his team are making media enemies everywhere - having already ordered ministers to boycott the Today programme and Newsnight, they have now fired the first wounding shot in what is going to be a nasty war against the BBC - and the journalists on Monday were right to take a stand.
But it was these very people who allowed this situation to develop, by dancing to Cummings's tune for fear of being cast out into the cold.
They all want to be in Dom's contacts book. If he whispers in their ear (or gets someone to do it for him), they are happy to take dictation. If he calls two or three of them, they don't ask "why aren't you telling everyone this?" They take the "scoop" with thanks. It's their job to be on the inside track.
There's nothing particularly new about it. Look back to the Blair-Campbell years. Joe Haines wrote to The Times today to remind us that Harold Wilson tried exactly the same stunt as Johnson back in the Sixties, adding that he was so aggrieved to be excluded as a junior reporter that when he became Wilson's press secretary he stopped lobby briefings altogether.
Today an exclusive one-to-one briefing or a nod and a wink to two or three favoured journos are accepted practice. If only the favoured few had turned up on Monday, would our heroes and heroines have said: "Why isn't there anyone here from the i or Mirror?"  Possibly not. They'd probably have thought it was a limited briefing - which was, of course, what No 10 intended. But it all gets a bit uncomfortable when you actually see a fellow journalist being sent on their way, when you see enacted before your very eyes how you are all being controlled.

There is a genuine point to be made about the importance of a free press across the political spectrum, but there is also a sense of grandstanding virtue-signalling in this morning's papers; a sudden concern that is absent when moves are being made to stifle the BBC. The Daily Mail did not think the Downing Street walkout worthy of reporting on Tuesday, but today it ran a leader alongside Glover's thousand-word essay - which still managed to bash the Beeb in what was supposed to be a defence of media freedom. 
This response could be taken as a warning shot to Johnson "don't take us for granted" - or the dawning realisation that "we may be his friends now, but for how long?", a reluctant recollection of that chilling poem "They came first for the socialists..."
Of course journalists want to cultivate friends in high places. Of course politicians want to nurture friendly journalists. But for rather too long, our media have given the impression of being used. The fear of being locked out, of not getting the story, has been getting in the way of objective reporting.

There was supposed to be a public inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the press: Leveson 2. Neither the Tories nor the papers wanted it - the existing snuggle suits them both too well - and it was duly squashed. 
So while Monday's protest was a welcome reminder to Johnson and Cummings that they shouldn't - and won't - get it all their own way, don't expect the "Boris says" splashes to dry up any time soon.