21 May 2020
View from the Cotswolds
The Thin Blue Line.
By Paul Branch
Thursday evening, 8 pm – time to get outside, suitably socially separated with glass in hand, and applaud once again those who continue to make sacrifices and take ridiculous risks on our behalf. The girls and boys now associated indelibly with NHS Blue, but not only health and care workers – bin men, posties, delivery van drivers, emergency services, bus drivers… in fact all those whose role and inclination is to keep on working so we have a better chance of coming out of lockdown unblemished.
Here in Chipping Norton, gateway to the Cotswolds, we are blessed with glorious rolling countryside, a more sedate pace of life, access to smaller cities like Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon, and fine social and medical facilities. The dreaded virus still comes in the night, though, with occasional fatal effect, not in the same appalling numbers as in the more teeming metropolitan centres but bad enough to drive everything we do. The financial cost of keeping calm and carrying on is also a worry – we may well survive lockdown, but how on earth do we recover our previous financial well-being and pay the monstrous bill our new Chancellor has incurred on our behalf?
It was telling to hear Rishi Sunak admitting in an interview that every job lost breaks his heart. The cynic in me is not surprised at that – he’s the Chancellor, he relies on raising money through taxation, so every job lost means no tax revenue but, worse still, it leads to payment of benefits… not what he wants to keep him in a job. But the nicer part of me thinks there’s a compassionate side to the young man – he sounds like a good bloke: dad a GP, mum runs a pharmacy; impeccable academic credentials and experience in high-rolling investments and finance. So maybe he really means it, and maybe he’s smart enough to guide us safely through the necessary economic mess he’s got us into.
However, he’s now a big wheel in a governing political party brought up on austerity as the answer to our last major global pandemic, the financial crash of 2008. What that really meant was one huge slice of society paid the highest price in terms of pay freezes and public service cuts, whilst those who could most ably cope with the cutbacks seemed to sail through with few or no problems. And of course the people most affected were most of those we applaud regularly on a Thursday evening. Surely, surely it would beggar belief if our brave new Chancellor were to employ those tactics again, given that the financial hole he needs to fill is orders of magnitude greater than that managed so uninspiringly by the Cameron-Osborne axis.
At the time there was a clear choice between that path to eventual stagnation of the economy or one of spending our way out of trouble by borrowing in order to invest in major capital projects – infrastructure, transport, industrial modernisation to get a grip on our wearying lack of productivity, job creation to raise tax revenues as opposed to job losses and food banks. In short, the way we were headed only the other month just before COVID-19 smacked into us. Did someone just whisper “Corbynism”?
Raising money through government borrowing is something the USA seems to do rather well. The size of its national debt is seemingly no problem – it promises to pay it all back, one day… maybe not this year, but perhaps next decade maybe, or maybe not. And no one bats an eyelid. As an aside, it’s beautifully ironic that one of their largest international creditors, if not the largest, is China, on which country Mr Trump seems to pour blame for all his many misfortunes and miscalculations. Perhaps he was being sarcastic in professing a desire to consider severing relations with China as retribution for inventing and disseminating the coronavirus, or maybe not. Presumably this would entail reneging on bond repayments, which could bring the whole concept of capitalism to its knees… but hey, that would still be a relatively small if necessary price to pay if it assured his re-election.
China on the other hand is said to be investing heavily in the future by developing its electrical power generating industry, while Trump tries to preserve the pollution of the past by getting a large chunk of his 30+ millions of unemployed back to work in coal mines and fossil-fuel generation plants. What a contrast in outlook and aspiration. And maybe there are lessons there for us to benefit from.
So assuming we get through the medical and economic obstacles that await us, what lies in store for our Thin Blue Line of key workers? It would be shamefully perverse if the result for them were to be the same old same old – underpaid, underprivileged and undervalued, and without the weekly round of applause… until we stumble into the next crisis.
As an example, a nurse in A&E in London today earns around £35,000 per annum, from which is deducted income tax and national insurance. Most Premiership footballers would have no problem attracting a contract worth £35,000 per week even from the doomed Villa (remember here we are in deepest West Midlands), plus bonuses, sponsorships, image rights and goodness knows what else, and the wherewithal to be able to afford smart advice on how to minimise their tax bill. Never mind that footballers have a short playing career, where’s the social justice in that 50:1 differential? And when it really matters, I know who I would rather have at the controls of my last-gasp ventilator.
But finding the money to at least pay the lower echelons of our health and care workers a proper wage has always been a hard ask. Maybe it’s because we know the price of what that would cost, but we shy away from admitting that they’re really worth it, that they are of real value to our fickle society and therefore deserve rewards as well as recognition.
Two other examples strike me as typical of the way we dish out our favours. First there’s good old Captain (now Colonel) Tom Moore, remorselessly striding his garden with his walking frame and raising over £30 millions for the NHS. His achievement and the generosity of the charitable donors are truly magnificent, and at least he got a promotion out of it. But why is it we have to rely on charity to keep our most vital public service going? Shouldn’t it be someone’s job in government to make sure we make adequate provision for every eventuality, preferably before it happens, so that we don’t have to resort to last-minute catch-ups and the ensuing shambles we’re still experiencing? But it’s not only contingency planning that’s lacking – the welfare of our NHS workers has been neglected for decades, allegedly because we could never afford it. I dare say those who have suffered most in the current pandemic would argue that in reality we couldn’t afford not to do things properly.
Dear old Boris has just discovered the art of stating the bleeding obvious. Having survived a life-threatening disease and given birth (two areas where I have some experience), he states that obesity needs to be dealt with and that the NHS is precious to all of us. And he’s stated that there will be no return to austerity. So that’s a good start in getting things going for him and young Rishi.
Secondly, on the BBC news the other night as one of its few non-mainstream COVID 19 items, Huw Edwards announced with due solemnity and an admirably straight face that the next series of Love Island had been cancelled. I sat there in some disbelief – we’d just heard about more deaths, new messages from the government about staying alive (which were either crystal clear or totally confusing depending on the ear of the listener), and almost in the same breath this excruciating piece of news which would presumably result in a gaggle of preening F-list alleged celebrities being furloughed for the summer.
If this is even an approximate reflection of what the nation really cares about then it will take more than money to sort out our most precious institutions and their workers – attitudes and values need reawakening, so let’s hope Boris and Rishi are up to the job.
I’m off now to satisfy my addiction and catch the first live football match in months, albeit the Bundesliga, but altogether now, let’s hear it for the girls and boys on the Thin Blue Line:
“Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.”