COVID-19: Bravo,Tesco

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Keep your distance: queuing at Tesco, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire

We’ve all seen the images of empty supermarket shelves. No loo paper for love nor money. Yet Britain’s supermarkets are doing a great job adapting to demand, and the need to let people shop while keeping apart, based on my experience at Tesco, Gerrards Cross.

I had a short wait getting into the store, as staff regulated the numbers in the shop. We were offered sanitiser at the entrance, which I used to wipe the trolley handle and my hands.

Once inside, I found everything I needed apart from liquid soap. It was a strangely calm shopping experience with fewer people in the shop. I did feel I needed to get it down quickly to allow others in.

There’s been a lot of talk of stockpiling – and I referred to this in my post last weekend about the British government’s communications response to COVID-19. We may have been too quick to judge: according to Kantar, the empty shelves reflect the fact we’re all adding a few more items to our baskets and making more shopping trips, rather than stockpiling.

PS: this unremarkable Tesco store has an unusual history. It was built over the Chiltern railway line and the tunnel collapsed on the tracks just after my train passed through in 2005. 

John Milton’s plague sanctuary closed by coronavirus

John Milton’s cottage, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

This is the cottage to which poet John Milton fled in 1665 to escape London’s Great Plague. Now a museum commemorating Milton’s life and works, it has, ironically, been closed by the coronavirus pandemic.  

The 1665 plague outbreak was the last epidemic of bubonic plague in England. It killed around 100,000 people – a quarter of London’s population. No wonder Milton fled the city with his family. He completed his famous epic poem, Paradise Lost, here. 

Milton was also a republican support of Oliver Cromwell. He served in the Commonwealth government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues – what a wonderful title for a poet serving as a minister. 

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Today, the authorities managing the response to COVID-19 are discouraging anyone wishing to follow Milton’s example and escape from London to the country. Let’s hope the coronavirus outbreak soon passes and visitors will again be discovering the last surviving home of one of England’s most famous poets. 

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Careless talk costs lives: communicating in the time of coronavirus

The famous wartime poster. Imperial War Museum

As far as we’re aware, COVID-19 isn’t capable of listening to Boris Johnson’s daily press conferences. But the UK government’s confused communications strategy is risking lives in the greatest health crisis for a century. It swerves from reassurance to urge calls for action. It’s muddled.

Problem 1: lack of openness

At a time of national emergency, clear, consistent, open communication is vital. Boris Johnson’s government took far too long to realise that the old days of spinning a line off the record to a chosen political reporter had to end. ITV political editor Robert Peston was at the heart of a storm a week ago when he was briefed that the government was planning to quarantine older people for months. Within hours, England’s health secretary Matt Hancock gave an article to the Daily Telegraph to explain the government’s approach. The problem? Telegraph content is behind a paywall. To give the government some credit, within 36 hours it held the first of its daily news conferences, with the prime minister flanked by the top medical and scientific advisers.

Answer: be straight with people. Share the medical advice that’s shaping policy. Health crises are not political. The prime minister need to be a national not a tribal leader. He needs to educate the people – the sign of a true leader. Continue reading

The war against coronavirus

The hidden enemy, seen. Image: BBC

It’s hard to escape the wartime metaphors. Britain is waging war against coronavirus, COVID-19. Health workers are on the front line, their health and lives at risk in a fight to protect us all.

Meanwhile, a Conservative government is about to commit mind-blowing sums to save businesses and jobs – rightly so. We’ve seen nothing like it since the second world war. Only the state can find the extraordinary sums needed to get us through the next six months.

We in Britain are facing the fact we won’t be travelling to so many places we love – Italy, France, Spain and beyond – for some time. My mind went back to my father’s generation, who found themselves cut off from the continent when war broke out in 1939. (Although they didn’t have the chance to travel as far and as often as we have become used to.)

The British journalist James Cameron gave a radio talk on the BBC in January 1941 that spoke eloquently of the sense of loss in being separated from the continent and precious places and people. He told listeners:

“The thing that troubled me most … was that I wouldn’t be able to go to France. I insist on thinking of Armege, and the dusty white road south, and a barrel of cider coming over the pavé on a wooden cart. There will be no more river-fish cooked in the Hotel du Cerf Blanc – but we shall have it again, somewhere, sometime.”

So said James Cameron almost 80 years ago. And so say all of us in 2020, as we live with a hidden enemy that has closed down everyday life in Britain even more than the human enemies of the past. We shall return to the banks of Liffey, the hills of Tuscany and the dusty roads of la France profonde.

James Cameron, reporter extraordinaire. The Best of Cameron, 1983

Postscript: historian AJP Taylor told in his autobiography how he left his car in France in 1939 in the rush to get home on the outbreak of war. He went back a week later to collect it. It was the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries and then France from 10 May onwards that cut Great Britain off.