14 January 2021
Britannia Still Afloat;
Nurses still going nowhere.
By Paul Branch
With great relief but with a modicum of trepidation we can report that, two weeks into Brexit, the good ship Britannia sails on serenely across our sovereign waters. The skies have not completely fallen in: food and medical supplies continue albeit with some impediments and empty shelves across the border in Northern Ireland; a few lorries have been turned away from the ports for not having the correct customs forms; only one lorry driver has had his ham sandwich lunch confiscated at the Dutch border; a handful of the major delivery companies have temporarily suspended services to the EU; and a few EU shares worth even fewer £billions have found their way back across the Channel to be traded in Paris and Frankfurt. As Michael Gove confirms: “It’ll get worse before it gets better”.
Some newspapers’ front pages gleefully confirmed our salvation from predicted doom as early as New Year’s morning when the Brexit deal was barely out of the wrapper. As they had done eleven months ago when the Withdrawal Agreement kicked in, but of course those pronouncements were even more premature. We need to assume that all will go swimmingly from now on, and look elsewhere for further encouraging news in these unsettling strange times, maybe from abroad.
There’s not a lot of point in casting an eye to America for encouragement, unless you hanker after the good old days of the Wild West. Just when the world was breathing a sigh of relief at the imminent transfer of power from one POTUS to the next, Trump goes way beyond throwing all his toys out of the pram and mayhem ensues in Washington, sadly not completely unexpectedly. The man acts as if he has something dangerously unstable in his make-up; ditto his more fanatical admirers, or at least a good percentage of the 73 millions who voted for him, and his dynastically-inclined family. The really scary possibility would have been him winning another term and but for his ludicrously egocentric mismanagement of the pandemic he might have done so, although to be fair their national death rate per million of the population is a touch better than ours. Goodness knows what his legacy will be – the Trump Presidential Library of Tweets in Florida will make for an interesting visit some day.
We could turn our attention to France for good news as they are changing their minds somewhat about their enthusiasm level for the vaccine – up from 40% last week to 60% now and rising. They had a nasty experience with a swine flu vaccine about ten years ago, with investigations into the efficacy of the vaccine and its roll out, but they seem to be recovering their confidence especially as infection rates have been significantly on the increase like ours. So safe summer holidays in France remain a possibility.
Back at home the arrival of a third approved vaccine to these shores is another chink of good news amongst the continued awfulness of the pandemic and our apparent inability to take the thing by the scruff of the neck and snuff it out. Given that we’re back to being a border-controlled sovereign island state you’d have thought slowing the infection in and out of the country would be straightforward, but no. We are now also reluctant to be firm enough domestically, with restrictions less stringent than we employed on Lockdown#1 when we were doing ever so well, but now the impact on our finances comes far more into play. Boris didn’t do much to help the economy, the pandemic or himself with his little excursion round the Olympic Park in Stratford when he has a perfectly respectable park a short pedal away from Downing Street. Dame Cressida Dick, boss of his Met police security guards, confirmed that Boris had not broken the law, but offered no opinion on his ridiculous lack of judgment. Makes you wonder why Carrie hadn’t stepped in to prevent him embarrassing himself, again.
Our erstwhile governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has been sharing his thoughts on the major issues facing the world – Covid, Climate and Crises in general – in his series of Reith lectures for the BBC. One of his themes was the value of peoples’ lives and of their jobs (ie, their contributions to society) as opposed to their market value (basically how much they’re paid), in the context of these various problems. He was completely supportive of Rishi Sunak’s attempts to borrow our way out of trouble, although let’s not forget Rishi’s latest prognostication that “It’ll get worse before it gets better”. Carney also suggested that, had we prepared properly for this or any other pandemic, the cost would have been equivalent to just two days’ worth of lockdown.
Carney argued that the vast majority of the UK had expressed a distinct preference based on human compassion for prioritising the health of the population above all else, and that monetary consequences were therefore less important. Thus the two aspects of the same problem should not be addressed simultaneously. Clearly for this to work we need to first take control of the virus, which means good judgment and clear messaging on the part of our leaders in trying to close down the spread of infection, and prioritised protection and recognition for our front-line key workers.
Sadly, despite government praising our gallant carers to the skies for their dedication and bravery during Lockdown#1, despite all the promises that carers would soon be suitably rewarded, and our fervent clapping on Thursday evenings to show our own heartfelt appreciation as best we could, there is still no sign of a new pay offer for nurses. There is an apology that the decision has unfortunately been delayed, and there appears to have been a recommendation to the pay tribunal that their award should take into account the nation’s stretched finances, all of which puts the nurses shamefully right back where they were – long shifts, staff shortages as the virus impacts them as well, more sick patients even than the last time, more fine words of thanks from their bosses, but still disgracefully undervalued with not much to show for their front-line bravery and painful stress. Mark Carney also suggests that key workers’ remuneration should reflect the personal danger involved in doing the job, which undoubtedly won’t happen.
We’re back to clapping, but despondent and desperate medical staff have told us quite clearly it would be so much better if we could just stick to the mask-distance-wash hands mantra while staying at home. We really are so lucky that the nurses are soldiering on despite their shameful treatment, putting their vocation and dedication before all else and being taken for granted again. We’ll probably get through the current wave of infections, despite the government, but let’s just hope the nurses will still be around for the next one. In their case it really does seem to be getting worse before it gets better.