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The Politics of Corona: Boris, Brexit & the NHS

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The British people have had enough of experts, but they never tire of irony.

The twist of fate that brought Boris Johnson into power just in time to lead Britain's response to COVID-19 is exquisite. This government only exists because it trashed expertise and the notion that facts might trump feelings, because in response to European cooperation we preferred to go it alone, and because the NHS would receive an extra £350m a week. That cumulative figure, by the way, now stands at about £70bn, which is an awful lot of intensive care beds.

For a short time, there was a sense that the British approach would be different and stand alone. The tacit implication was that our understanding of epidemiology was greater than our ever-questionable continental cousins. In other words, 'our facts are better than yours'. For a brief moment, it might even have felt in Number 10 like Brexit and coronavirus dovetailed beautifully into a timely instance of national vindication.

We can only hope Britain's economy isn't Too Big To Save

Alas, it wasn't to be. After a brief flirtation with 'delay', the Government has retreated firmly back to 'contain'. As it turned out, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' is only effective as public health policy up to a point. And at that point, the health service falls over. Staring down the barrel of a quarter of a million dead apparently prompted a government rethink and 'herd immunity' was swiftly added to the list of Banned Words that circulates round Downing Street, right below 'Brexit' and 'No Deal'. For now, we have far bigger problems, but the fact that Brexit Britain was dragged slowly but surely into line with its European peers might be a lesson for us all.

What else are we learning? That it isn't just humans who lack immunity to COVID-19. The structure of our society does too. Our lack of social safety net, the increasing precariousness of work, the underfunding of the health service, the housing crisis, the fact that in macro-economic terms we haven't got over the last debacle. All this means we are not well placed to absorb the shock that is to come. The banks were Too Big To Fail. We can only hope Britain's economy isn't Too Big To Save.

At least, unlike austerity, we really are all in this together. Disease is an equal opportunity bastard. There are no walls of wealth or class that can reliably save you from coronavirus. Even the super rich, anecdotally holed up in their bunkers, can't completely sever a chain of contact with the outside world. We all rely on other people. And 'other people' get ill.

There are some silver linings. The country, it seems to me, has become much friendlier. It's not just the weather we've all got as our great subject-in-common these days. The internet has rendered self-isolation dramatically more bearable while also allowing some economic activity to continue. If that wasn't enough, Question Time has cancelled its live studio audience.

More significantly, the imperative to help has unleashed a great wave of pent up compassion and community spirit. Across Sheffield, notes of assistance are being passed under doors, WhatsApp groups are bringing residents together and Facebook is being used to coordinate the sharing of everything from smartphones to lettuce seeds (so you can grow your own). The practical support will be critical for some. The feeling of coming together will be necessary for us all.

We are still in the early hours of this dark day. The full impact remains to be seen and there are so many questions that cannot be answered. No doubt this pandemic will bring out the worst in some. Let us also hope it brings out the best. Comparisons are increasingly being drawn to our national experience of World War Two and in social and economic terms that's probably fairer than not. All of which means that once again in our history, the wisest thing any of us can do right now is... yep, Keep Calm and Carry On.

Laurence Peacock

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Sheffield Mutual Aid Local Groups

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Filed under: #Coronavirus

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