Monday 11 May 2020

Covid-19: the Reagan-Thatcher legacy

I was born three years after the end of the Second World War. From that day to this, with the brief but bloody exception of the wars in the Balkans in the early 1990s, Europe has been at peace. Seventy-five years: a record in the continent’s turbulent history.

So for my generation, and for those who came after us, the coronavirus crisis is the first major national upheaval in our lifetimes. There has been no shortage of crises – the Suez crisis of 1956; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; the oil crisis of 1973-4 and the government-mandated three-day week; the widespread public sector strikes during the winter of discontent in 1978-9; and more recently, the global financial melt-down of 2007-8.

But nothing to compare with what we are facing now. No wonder so many of us are finding it difficult to cope. And no wonder our political leaders are at a total loss – this is way beyond anything they ever imagined they might have to deal with. As far as I know, a PPE degree from Oxford (remember the days when PPE stood for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, not Personal Protective Equipment?) has no modules devoted to global public health emergencies.

Inevitably, Matt Hancock, the UK’s hapless health secretary, did PPE. So did the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Boris Johnson, famously, did Classics. Dominic Raab studied Law; Michael Gove did English.

Oh for a doctor or two, like Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, or Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. There are, in fact, eight Tory MPs who are qualified doctors (including Liam Fox), but not one of them is in government. As far as I can see, Rosena Allin-Khan is the only doctor on the Labour benches; Keir Starmer has sensibly appointed her to his shadow health team. (Her boss, though, is Jonathan Ashworth, who, inevitably, studied politics and philosophy.)

All of which is to say that Ministers are way out of their depth. And it is painfully, excruciatingly, obvious. The prime minister’s TV statement on Sunday night, and his statement in the House of Commons this afternoon, did nothing other than to confuse an already confused population by demonstrating his notorious inability to focus on detail.

I can now go to a local park as often as I like. But I can’t meet up with my two adult children or my two baby grandchildren, even if we stay two metres apart. I am allowed, however, to meet up with one of them at a time. Don’t anyone dare try to tell me that this nonsense comes from ‘following the science.’

According to the World Health Organisation, ‘coronavirus droplets are relatively heavy, do not travel far and quickly sink to the ground.’ That’s why we’re told to stay two metres away from people who aren’t members of our household. But if we’re relatively safe two metres away from one person, we must be equally safe two metres away from two people. Or four, or six, or ten.

We baby-boomers used to be called the luckiest generation in history: no wars to be killed in, the NHS, free education up to and including university, jobs galore, and a steadily rising housing market. Now we’re called ‘vulnerable’ and told we’re not allowed to see our grandchildren. Not so lucky any more.

And if you’re wondering why the US and UK, two of the richest countries in the world, have ended up with two of the worst anti-Covid records, I would suggest you look back at the political and economic philosophies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Small government, low taxes, squeezed public services, and private enterprise left to pick up the pieces. The tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths are, in no small part, their legacy.

Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were culpably, unforgivably slow to acknowledge that urgent government action was required to confront the coronavirus pandemic. Their instinct was to sit back and let the virus do what viruses do: kill people and burn themselves out. The results are there for us all to see: in our hospitals, care homes, mortuaries and graveyards. History will damn them for both their indolence and their incompetence.