Whose heart would not swell with pride at the 450,000 people who have volunteered their time, their energy and to a degree their safety, by signing up to become NHS volunteers. There is just something very British about it. We are not going to be cowed by this monster. We will all do our little bit- whether driving medicines for patients, phoning up the lonely or vulnerable, or helping in a thousand little ways- we will beat this great black vulture-like vampire which is hovering over us. Philippa and I have signed up, although I think she will be of more use than me. Having seen our great NHS at first hand last week, when I must have been one of the very last to squeak in with an ‘elective’ hip operation in Bath, I have seen first-hand what a superb Health Service we have. What dedication our NHS people have; what skills, what scientific and medical knowledge; and what superb medicines and equipment. The NHS is the finest healthcare system in the World, and we will not allow it to be overwhelmed in the way which is threatened in the next week or two.
I am recuperating (and not doing my exercises as well as I ought), and who would not recognise the attractions of a Cotswold farmhouse in the Spring sunshine as a great place to self-isolate over the Easter Recess? But we won’t be lounging around. I was on my feet (sort of) the morning after the operation. I have a fully operational office next door to my house, from where I am flat out dealing with Coronavirus-related issues and problems. If a bloke with a dodgy but recently mended hip is any use to the NHS volunteers, then I hope they will make maximum use of us.
Coronavirus is producing a range of symptomatic human reactions, ranging from those who think ‘it’s all a load of tosh’, through the conspiracy theorists who ascribe it to aggressive national attack from China, to the engineers who rejoice in proposing a range of initiatives and solutions, very few of which are workable; to those who demand extreme and calamitous action from the authorities. (‘Any group larger than two caught sunbathing will get a mandatory 20 years hard labour’ - you know the kind of thing I mean) There are those -rightly- very concerned about our front-line staff, about Protective Equipment; there are the outraged, the miserable, the Dunkirk spirited. But the only ones who really count are those ready to volunteer, who put their own well-being aside in favour of caring for the old or infirm.
All of those reactions will be amplified and exaggerated over the next three weeks or so as the virus moves to its fatal crisis point, and as all sorts of people forced into close proximity with one another come to realise how hard it all is. Children will be finding it all quite amusing this week- in a few weeks’ time, they will be going ‘stir crazy’; their parents will be tearing their hair out. People are quite rightly terrified about the economic consequences for them and their families; we are all facing an unknown future with a mix of trepidation, resignation, perturbation and irritation. And that will only get worse.
We will start to hear from the catastrophic gloomsayers, those predicting cataclysm, Armageddon and the end of the World. The moment that we do start to hear from them is precisely the moment at which things will turn for the better. We have been here before. The Black Death in 1348 caused at least 50% mortality, and led to widespread poverty, starvation and civic unrest culminating in the Peasants Revolt of 1381.The Wars of the Roses, decline of the aristocracy and feudal England, followed. But then so did Reformation and Renaissance and the beginnings of modern times. And all of that came from the flea on the back of the black rat which came ashore in Folkestone in June 1348. “Ring a Ring of Roses, a pocket full of posies. Atishoo, atishoo; we all fall down,” is the gloomy Nursery rhyme which commemorates it. (Roses and posies refer to the buboes and rashes which were symptoms of Bubonic Plague.)
There were plenty of Millennials throughout that time predicting universal death and destruction. They will appear over the next few weeks too. Yet I am much encouraged by Mother Julian of Norwich, writing from that plague infested City: “God did not say ‘You will not be troubled; You will not be laboured; You will not be disquieted; But God said ‘You will not be overcome.’” Perhaps we should bear that in mind as we face what will without doubt be a very vexing few weeks to come- both personally and nationally. We will get through it. We must do what the Government tells us; we must self-isolate, hunker down, keep steady. We must volunteer. Do our own little bit.
Probably the most obscure figure from the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was an innkeeper in Melford Green in Suffolk, where John Wraw, the rebel, stopped off for a ‘pipe of red wine’ for which he was charged 7 marks, 3 shillings and four pence. The Innkeeper was called Enewene the Taverner, presumably because of his diminutive size. Seven centuries later we remember him just because he served a pipe of red wine to some passing revolutionaries.
The world will not end; but there may well be great changes to come, some of them (Renaissance and Reformation) perhaps greatly for the good of the world. We just need to remember three people: the flea who started it all off; Enewene the Taverner, whose name is with us 700 years later for some small bit part in history (the little things we may do and say over the next few weeks may be with us for a very long time).
But above all, remember Mother Julian of Norwich: “You will not be overcome.”
One thing we Brits are rather good at is volunteering at a time of crisis. We normally stare at the floor in the Underground; but the moment that something goes wrong, we magically start speaking to each other and working together for the common good. That was demonstrated in spades in the Second World War, and now is another time just like it.
All the reports indicate that we are facing some very tough times indeed (although let’s hope that its less bad in the event.) Very large numbers of seriously sick people, sadly a significant number of deaths. It’s said that the over 70s are going to have to stay at home for a long period of time; even that sooner or later the whole Nation may be ‘shut down.’
Now, if even part of all of that is true, there are going to be all sorts of personal crises at a family, local and community level. People are going to need help with shopping; they may need help with transport to and from hospital; they may just need a little chat down the phone to stop them getting lonely. People on their own, especially old people may well need all sorts of help and support. And, without increasing risks in any way, its you and I who can help.
This is going to be a National crisis. The authorities will do what they can; but there is only so much they can do. And ordinary people in their everyday lives can volunteer to fill some of those gaps. So how do we go about it?
Well there are well established organisations who are gearing up. The St John Ambulance, or Order of St John as it is more properly known, are in the lead. They are mainly working with the NHS. They have 10,000 medically trained volunteers and a very large number of untrained. I have been in touch with them at a senior level to see how I can help and know that they would always want to hear of either problems; or of volunteers.
Then the Red Cross are actively recruiting Community Reserve Volunteers. Whereas the Order of St John are in the lead on the medical side, the Red Cross are in the lead on the social care side of things. You can easily sign up at https://reserves.redcross.org.uk. (Philippa and I have both signed up, dodgy hip permitting.) I know that Wiltshire Council are doing what they can to coordinate volunteer efforts locally; and organisations like the Scouts and Guides; the Reserve Army and others will all be chipping in where they are needed.
But more than any of that: if the 10,000 or so people who get this email on a weekly basis were to jot down the names and numbers of six or ten friends and relatives who may need some help, and then systematically sit down and ring them- that alone would mean up to 100,000 people contacted and helped. Those of us who can do so must do so. Your Country, but more importantly your friends and family and local community NEED YOU.
There was a famous old exchange in a court between a judge, who pompously pronounced “Your client is no doubt aware that Vigilantibus, et not dormientibus, jura subveniunt?”; to which the shrewd barrister responded in his Yorkshire accent: “In Barnsley, m'lud, they speak of little else.”
Coronavirus has achieved that status in Parliament, the media and across the country. I am doing a bit of self-isolating not because I am infectious, but because I simply don’t want to catch it before my hip operation next Thursday, for which I can hardly wait. I am back in Wiltshire now, and plan to stay here until after the operation (and the very necessary physio thereafter.) So you won’t see me appearing on the Parliament Channel for a while, but I will be working from my Constituency office, and so won’t be slacking during convalescence. (Although my staff have very kindly given me a 1000-piece jigsaw of the Palace of Westminster which looks fiendishly complicated, to keep me quiet while I’m laid up).
The Government seems to me to be handling the Coronavirus crisis well - seeking to delay the peak so that hospitals have cleared their winter patients before it really hits. So we all need to take the precautions they advise and the whole thing will be over by the Summer. However, I do know how concerned people quite naturally are, and will later today send out a separate Column on the crisis and my views on it all.
The Budget and its £30 Billion Coronavirus fund, together with the Bank of England base rate cut will help. Rarely have I heard a Budget so widely acclaimed. The new Chancellor did a brilliant job - hard to believe that he’s only been in Parliament for 5 minutes.
I plough my own furrow. I rebelled against the Government over the idiotic decision to hand over our vital 5G Network to Chinese Government monopoly, Huawei. 35 other Tories rebelled, and I am glad to say that number included all of those who really understand national security. I was hauled in for a jotter-down-the trousers interview with the PM and Chief Whip over it; which, as you might imagine had no effect on my decision whatsoever. But it may not have enhanced my career prospects. Never mind - more time to spend in North Wilts.
My last job in Parliament until we all come back after Easter was to host a Westminster Hall debate on various aspects of the appalling murder of 17-year-old Ellie Gould in Calne in May last year. I have been doing a good bit of work with her parents, Matt and Carole, over the (far too lenient) sentence on her murderer; victim support and in a variety of other ways. Ellie’s three school friends, Ellie Welling, Harriet Adams and Tilda Offen are campaigning for better relationships training; and they have now come up with the very sound notion of basic self-defence training for all in schools up and down the county. The Minister’s response by letter was cautiously encouraging but made the point that schools must decide their own curriculum. So I thought I would call a debate in Parliament ion the subject, at least in part to secure some wider publicity for this thoroughly good idea.
Coronavirus, the Budget - these are great and important clouds swirling around the Westminster landscape. But in North Wiltshire it is self-defence in schools, the detail of the Budget and so many other day-to-day problems. They talk of little else.
There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the crisis facing us all - across the Globe. Hundreds of thousands of us, quite possibly millions will catch the disease and it will have a greater or lesser effect on us. For many it will be not much worse than a spot of ‘flu; for others - especially the elderly and vulnerable, it may well be a great deal more serious than that. It has already had a huge effect on our way of life: on international travel; on the Stock Exchange and money markets. Its worldwide effects are already similar to great events of recent years - 9/11; 7/7; Iraq; Afghanistan; the banking collapse; the death of Princess Diana. These are all huge milestones in world history, as will be COVID-19.
I remain, however, of the view that either of two currently popular reactions (both of which are well represented in my postbag) are misplaced. To those who ‘pooh pooh’ it as “a bit of a cold”, I would just say that you are demonstrably wrong. This thing is deadly serious. Yet to those who advocate panic reactions of all kinds, I would urge caution. An over-reaction now could well make it all worse rather than better. Unless you seriously are proposing that we should all go back to our homes and sit there for three or four months doing nothing at all, which would be unsustainable, and boring in equal measure, then we need to find a route by which some kind of normal life continues, yet with suitable precautions in place.
The course of the epidemic here is about 4 weeks behind that of Italy. All of the predictions seem to be of a peak in April or perhaps May. If we were therefore to ban travel, close offices and schools, close Britain down in the way they did in China and now Italy, we would be doing so too soon. The virus would still take its course, but we would have run out of mechanisms to try to contain it. Do we really want our children at home for 3 months? Do we really want to cancel exams, close businesses, ruin lives, when such extreme action would be to go against the careful advice of the scientific and medical experts?
So it seems to me that the Government has got the balance just right in their response. They have attempted to make the public aware of the health risks, without causing mass panic. Common sense advice about personal hygiene, and about self-isolation if you have symptoms, seem to me to be pragmatic good sense. The key to our behaviour should not be ‘How do I avoid getting it?’; but ‘Imagining that I may now have it, what do I do to avoid passing it on to other people, including my own friends and family?’
All of this will change as the course of the epidemic develops. It may well be that in April or May closing schools, universities, sports matches, public gatherings of all kinds may be advised by the health and scientific professionals. They are assessing their response on a daily basis and will take the necessary action at the appropriate time.
Keep Calm and Carry On was good advice in the Blitz. It’s a very British way of doing things, but it just may be appropriate now.
The political turbulence of the last four years – the rancour and bitterness; leadership plots; de-selections, elections and the rest - was behind us. The waters ahead looked smooth and easily navigated. We had left the EU and were getting on with Ministerial appointments, select committee work, routine Parliamentary activities…
And then - out of the blue from a little heard of part of China called Wuhan - came Coronavirus. (Why has it been renamed Covid-19?) All of a sudden, we are facing a Pandemic (expect that to be declared any day now), 20% of the population infected, many sad deaths, schools and businesses closed, even talk (incorrect I hope) of sending Parliament home for 5 months. Flybe’s bankruptcy was probably predictable, and only peripherally connected; but there will no doubt be other economic and businesses consequences, not least because of the enforced isolation of China. No-one can predict what the next few months will bring, just as not a soul predicated Coronavirus in the first place.
The public and commentators seems to risk falling into two fundamental errors over all of this. First, it is in fact not the Black Death, nor Typhus nor Spanish Flu. There will be casualties for sure; but then we have many deaths every year from ordinary flu. Some of us love a crisis and are succumbing to a thoroughly self-indulgent little panic over it all. Do not. It may be a bit unpleasant for a bit, but it’s not the end of the world.
The opposite is equally wrong. There are those robust souls around ready to say: “pull yourself together, nothing to worry about. Bit of infection never did anyone any harm.” I have some sympathy; yet they risk belittling what could well be a very serious Pandemic. It’s not a catastrophe, but it’s not ‘nothing’ either. So I think the Government have for now got it just about right. Keep taking all sensible precautions - lots of handwashing (didn’t we do that anyhow), self-isolation if you have been in contact with a sufferer; cutting back on needless handshaking and kissing. (All in favour of that anyhow.) It will all be over by the summer, so for now let’s just keep the panic under control. Keep Calm and Carry On.
Rather the same applies to Priti Patel. She certainly is a feisty character. But then you have to be to be a successful and effective Home Secretary. The campaign against her - by senior civil servants and the Labour Party - really does amount to the forces of darkness. So many Home Secretaries have been assassinated by them before now, and we must not allow it to happen again. Law and Order, Policing, Immigration- these are tough and controversial portfolios. Priti Patel’s approach to them is definitely at odds with the Liberal minded North London elite who run the civil service. That is precisely why she must be allowed to get on with it without let or hindrance.
And as to the Prime Ministerial engagement and imminent fatherhood – happy events indeed; and events which must not cut across the serious business of Government.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water……
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.