Controlling the virus is about more than crisis management
Every day there is a new debate around the next steps to be taken in the coronavirus crisis. When and how should schools reopen? How long should furlough continue and who should pay for it? Why have care homes deaths been so high and so neglected?
Debate is healthy in a democracy and, as Keir Starmer is fond of reminding Boris Johnson, this is complex stuff to which no one is likely to have all the answers.
But Keir has also been right to call for clarity and consensus, which have been in short supply this week. The leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the mayors of our major cities and regions, employer and trade union organisations have all disagreed with the steps that have been taken or proposed to unlock the lockdown or at least their timing. Why is this?
Firstly, the complexity point. This is two crises not one. The actual health and the economic health of millions of people in the UK, billions around the world, is at risk. Each on its own would be the most difficult problem for any government since the second world war. But we have both together and, to add to the misery, mitigating one makes the other worse. More isolation means more debt; back to work risks a second spike.
It takes exceptional leadership to deal with such crises; to foresee the right course and have the courage to take it; to be across the detail but also have a strategy to transform our fortunes; and to carry people with you.
The Prime Minister and government are failing on these tests. The former because he lacks and has never pretended to have the skills to manage a crisis rather than do entertainment front of house. The latter because they were chosen for their opinions and obedience not for their experience or skill. Like Labour before Starmer, much of the talent of the Tory party is now on the backbenches or out of Parliament altogether.
But the government isn’t going away so by stick and carrot they have to be got match fit. The stick is the probing Boris Johnson is getting every week at Prime Minister’s Questions from the former DPP. It should be redoubled every day by media scrutiny. Our press in particular love to tell us how independent and fearless they are, but the level of questioning, with a few honourable exceptions, ranges from the pusillanimous to the toadying. For some, Johnson is their man and they protect him even when he is clearly losing the plot.
The government abets this by refusing to put up ministers for questioning on the most difficult outlets. They have learned that the broadcast media, to achieve balance, will put up with a sympathetic journalist or backbench MP who can put the government line while claiming no responsibility for explaining failing policies.
When they do appear, the priority for ministers is to win the politics not the battle against the virus: whether that is inflating test numbers, or easing lockdown before the infrastructure for doing so was in place to keep donors and backbench MPs on board.
The carrot – encouraging the government to do the right things – is a combination of praise for what it gets right and advice on what to do next. The increase in intensive care capacity and the support packages for business and workers were sound decisions.
What should happen next? If we assume that there will be no magic bullet in the form of a vaccine or effective treatment for the virus this year, the balance between controlling the virus and not staying home has to be very carefully managed. I am stating the obvious by saying this got off to the worst possible start.
The messaging ‘stay alert’ was opaque. The signal to employers and staff that everyone not able to work from home should be back at work this week was crass given inadequate provision for childcare, public transport or distancing in the workplace. People ‘should’ cover their faces in enclosed spaces, will be ‘asked’ to quarantine when coming into the UK, the rest is ‘could’ and ‘hopes’. This is stumbling stuff when we need certainty and clarity.
We will follow orders in a way unthinkable in ‘peacetime’ but only if we have confidence in those handing them out. Everyone – parents, children and teachers – wants schools to reopen but when the teaching unions raise concerns about safety they are vilified. And let’s not forget that many teachers are already working, looking after vulnerable children, and are exposed to the same risks as other frontline workers.
Thousands of people are still dying every week. The crisis in care homes is not under control. PPE supply is inadequate for many on the frontline. It was premature to end the ‘stay home’ message and the devolved administrations are right to retain it. Doing the groundwork both in terms of preparation for loosening restrictions and in explaining and building support for that is pretty basic stuff. It hasn’t happened.
Businesses, especially those not covered by the rescue packages, are really hurting after two months of lockdown. Supply chain firms in the hospitality industry have lost 100% of trade but don’t get the help public-facing outlets do. Small limited companies, like those in the creative and service sector, are also denied help. Some famous Hammersmith venues are also struggling from lack of business, like Bush Hall.
At the same time some big airline companies, like BA and Virgin, are using the crisis as an opportunity to restructure and lay off thousands of staff who qualify for furlough.
This is difficult and conflicted territory, but we could get behind the decision makers more if they looked like they had a plan beyond let’s wait and see if something turns up. In particular, there has been one glaring gap in the avalanche of information in the past week. Where are we with testing, tracing and isolation?
If the problem with the government approach is that it is piecemeal, contradictory and confused, the reason may be that there is no end in sight. But there could be. What both the health ‘doves’ and the economic ‘hawks’ have in common with each other and the rest of us is that their problems would be solved if the virus truly was under control. If we could identify who is carrying it and isolate them and those they have been in contact with, the possibility for both dramatically reducing the infection rate and opening up lockdown becomes a reality.
This should have been a continuous process, as Jeremy Hunt said this week, and the cost in lives of not doing it for two months is severe. But it is still the best, indeed the only, way of giving a resolution to the crisis and therefore of giving all of us hope.
Our NHS and care workers and indeed all staff working on the front line continue to do a fantastic job under the most difficult circumstances.
400 people in total have died in Charing Cross, Hammersmith and St Mary’s hospitals, 683 have recovered and been discharged. The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care is down to 43.
There was public recognition for the work of the West London NHS Trust which set up the first Covid-19 wards for patients with mental health needs on the Charing Cross site.
The network of community support continues to expand. If you need help and are not receiving it, Hammersmith & Fulham Council run the community aid network H&F CAN for anyone struggling in the current crisis. If you need help, call freephone 0800 145 6095. The lines are open 9am to 7pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 2pm at weekends. You can also email them at email@example.com.
There are many other excellent schemes combining council, third sector and volunteer resources.
The picture above is not my tribute to the late Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk but a stint helping out with the Urban Partnership Group’s food distribution in White City last week. UPG is a local neighbourhood service which supports the young and old and families with children under five in Hammersmith, Edward Woods and White City estates. Call 020 7605 0800 or visit www.upg.org.uk.
On Monday I am joining the H&F Foodbank at their base in Olympia.
And a special mention for We Care, who with the support of the H&F GP Federation are linking primary schools to care homes. So far, our four main care homes have received care packages from Wendell Park, Ark Swift, St. John XXIII, The Good Shepherd, Larmenier and Sacred Heart and St. Peter’s primary schools.
Please continue to give to our excellent local charities:
Hammersmith United is the coordinating group https://unitedhf.org/join-us/covidhf/
Refugees and asylum seekers are getting support from West London Welcome
London Rainbow are collecting tablet and smartphones for patients in hospital to communicate with their loved ones.
Home Iftar is making daily home deliveries of meals.
The Upper Room which supports local homeless people has launched its Walk a Mile fundraiser.
They are asking for people to Walk A Mile, Donate £5 to The Upper Room, and Nominate 5 friends to do the same. Donate at https://www.theupperroom.org.uk/donate
Imperial Health Charity is collecting donations to help support our local hospitals and the brilliant staff who work in them.
The Friends of Charing Cross Hospital are providing emergency funds to help hospital staff cope with the extreme pressures they are under in helping to fight this virus.
And for advice on everything from benefits and employment to debt and housing contact the CAB or Law Centre
It infects everything
I have been trying to get on with my normal constituency work but even after two months my inbox is still double its usual size thanks to virus-related mail.
Can I both thank my staff for coping with this and appeal for patience to anyone who has written and not received a reply within the advertised response times. We are prioritising all enquiries on the basis of urgency.
In reality, most things at present have a virus dimension.
I spoke at a seminar organised by the Young H&F Foundation this week. Of course, it is the old and the vulnerable who are most at risk from the pandemic but young people are also profoundly affected. They are more likely to lose their jobs or incomes, especially if working in the gig economy. And the long-term economic consequences are bleak.
I think of someone leaving education in 2010 and facing Austerity, Brexit and now Coronavirus. That is some ABC. They may be 40 before they witness growth and prosperity.
In a zoom with the transport minister I raised the resumption of work on HS2 which is causing misery and risk to residents living around the Old Oak site.
He agreed to look at the evidence we have compiled of breaches of social distancing but most construction projects big and small are now restarting from the Thames Tunnel to basements and roof extensions. With many people still at home this is causing a lot of complaints.
The Justice Select Committee is meeting regularly and this week I got the chance to question the prisons minister on why the release scheme has stalled. Up to 4000 prisoners including pregnant women and those at the end of their sentence were due to be released and another 500 let out on tag.
After six weeks, 50 have been released plus another 5 on compassionate grounds. The reasons? Like the general estimates of deaths that for prisons has been dramatically reduced – from over 2000 to 100. Meanwhile, the closure of courts and lockdown have reduced conviction rates temporarily. So early releases have virtually stopped yet thousands of prisoners still share cells and overcrowding and 23-hour lock ups is rife. A missed opportunity
We missed the street parties and the chance to pay public tribute to those of the wartime generation still with us, but VE Day did feel more than usually relevant given the current crisis. A chance to mull on the similarities and the differences. The picture is from the street in Fulham where I grew up. Let me know if you can identify it. At the back is my family home that my father and grandparents moved into in 1940. He was then in the army until 1947 and the house suffered bomb damage, so not there for the party.
But everyone in the picture had just been through six years of privation, fear of invasion and loss. Many had suffered from a decade or more of depression before the war and were facing another decade of rationing ahead of them.
That they emerged to build a prosperous, peaceful and compassionate society should invoke hope as well as admiration in us.