Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?
The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.
I was a very proud son today. My 93 year old father Bob Skinner appeared on prime time national TV to praise the care home staff who are making his life comfortable and happy despite being ‘locked down’ for a couple of weeks as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Dad was interviewed live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. He explained how the carers at Sunrise of Cardiff have provided exceptional care, despite the challenges they themselves have faced during the pandemic. Bob described how he couldn’t have been luckier to be at his Sunrise home, thanks to the exceptional care from staff who, he said, have become friends. “I couldn’t praise them high enough,” he said. “I’ve even learned to play bingo!”
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By Robert Howlett, via Wikimedia Commons
Britain has been very impressed by the achievement of turning London’s ExCel conference centre into an emergency NHS coronavirus hospital, named after Florence Nightingale. Yet few realise that the Nightingale NHS Hospital London project follows the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel over 160 years ago.
Brunel was the most flamboyant engineer of Victorian Britain. Most famous for his elegant railways, soaring bridges and pioneering steamships, he also designed a hospital in just six days during the Crimean War in 1855.
These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)
Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.
It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.
Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.
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.
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.
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.
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 →
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.
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.
I just want to pay tribute to Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer fundraiser, who has died at 19. It’s heartbreaking to watch and hear today’s archive recordings of him. But what breathtaking maturity and wisdom.
His parents deserve huge thanks for raising such a credit to humanity. At a time when there are so many examples of man’s cruelty to mankind, Stephen’s example and legacy will live on.
The (replica) Soho water pump that killed hundreds from cholera
Thousands of tourists pass through London’s Soho every day. Few glance at this Broadwick Street water pump. Yet it tells the amazing story of how Dr John Snow solved the mystery of why thousands of Londoners were dying of cholera in Victorian London.
Snow rejected the accepted view that cholera was spread by polluted air. That view was disastrously influencing government policy. In the 1848/49 cholera epidemic, poor law commissioner Edwin Chadwick ordered that sewers be flushed into the Thames to clean the air in poor areas. Yet large areas of London took drinking water from the river – so Chadwick’s policy condemned thousands to death by cholera.