We were enjoying a long weekend in London, for a family celebration. We went to Art exhibitions and Kew Gardens and had joyous meals in a variety of restaurants with lots of laughter and fun and the company of those we love best in all the world.
It was the end of January, and there was a lot of Brexit stuff going on—people travelling to the city to wave their flags, booths along the Thames with camera crews set up to interview MPs and pundits about what it all meant. As a family of Remainers, we avoided all that as much as we possibly could.
But it was a newspaper report that had nothing to do with Brexit or even (apparently) the UK that had led to my husband’s ominous prediction. A new virus had appeared in China, and spread so rapidly that the city of Wuhan was now in total lockdown. Ever the optimist, my husband had for years been expecting a pandemic to arrive, one day. In his view, that time had come. I’ll not say that as a family we ignored him this time, but we certainly didn’t give it a great deal of thought.
Full of happy memories, we caught the train home—where some disappointing medical results temporarily pushed everything else out of our heads. But we were reassured to learn that a couple of cases of the virus in York had been swiftly quarantined, as were all the British citizens brought home from Wuhan. It looked as if the government had it all in hand, exactly as one would have hoped and expected. Then there was an outbreak in Italy, and someone brought the virus back home with him from there, infecting several other people on the way. That was rather more worrying, but it seemed that every attempt was being made to trace his contacts and quarantine them too.
Then it all went quiet. Friends returning by plane to the UK walked out of airports with no checks, no warnings, nothing, no matter where they came from. In Durham, where we live, tourists continued to flock to the Cathedral in great numbers. For some years we’ve been involved with international postgraduate students in Durham, many of them from China. They were amazed at the lack of any serious response to the threat of the virus. Events had been organised for them, but as February edged into March, they began to drop out of everything, shut themselves away in their rooms. We ourselves stopped going to many of our regular activities, before these activities were cancelled for lack of numbers.
Then, on 12 March, more than a month after my husband’s dire prediction, came our Prime Minister’s speech to the nation about the virus. This was, he told us, the worst public health crisis for a generation, and we were all going to lose loved ones. There might even come a time when public gatherings would be banned, but meanwhile anyone with a cough should stay at home for 7 days, older people should avoid going on cruises and everyone should wash their hands. That was more or less it. One of our Chinese student friends, hearing that speech, booked the next available flight back to China, on the grounds that at least his home country was taking the virus seriously.
Well, we all know what’s happened since then. A government made up of people elected to ‘Get Brexit Done’ found themselves facing a completely different crisis and for weeks floundered around, doing very little. Once it became obvious that much of the population had gone into voluntary lockdown, this became official policy. Hospitals were put into emergency mode (which meant cancelling a great many other treatments, including my husband’s). But years of austerity have led to shortages of equipment, of facilities for testing, of almost everything needed to deal with a pandemic. And it’s only now, well into May, that there’s talk of putting people into quarantine when they arrive in this country from abroad—whatever happened to taking back control of our borders?
Having later caught the virus himself, our Prime Minister now appears to take the threat more seriously. But that hasn’t stopped our ‘leaders’ using wish fulfilment as government policy. We were promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, and by fiddling the figures they were able to claim that had been done—for one day only. We were told supplies of PPE, inadequate at first, were now available to all who needed them. We were told that care homes were being protected. We were told that our response to the crisis was the envy of the world. None of this was true.
It’s a truly difficult situation for any government to deal with, and of course mistakes will be made, whoever is in power. But honesty, transparency and basic competence is the least one might expect or hope for. We simply haven’t experienced any of these things. My husband claims he’d have done a better job. I think he’s right about that…