The Coronacrisis is descending into an unhelpful blame game



There’s a feature of the daily Downing Street press conferences on the battle against the coronavirus pandemic that occurs all too frequent; some journalists seem to think that for every problem, delay or difficulty there must always be someone to blame. 

Health minister Matt Hancock’s statement to the House of Commons that decisions to move patients from hospital to care homes are a clinical, not political, decision was described as ‘passing the buck’. 

The lack of personal protection equipment is entirely the government’s fault according to the press, overlooking the fact that stockpiling of equipment is the responsibility of Public Health England. ‘But why didn’t we have enough?’ screamed the press. Probably the same reason we didn’t have thousands of tanks and aircraft ready at the beginning of WW2 is the simple answer… and we had a bit more notice regarding that conflict.

It’s obvious that the media realises that it can’t be seen to be criticising the NHS, so any fault it perceives must lie with ministers. Interestingly, military personnel who were drafted in to help were not so timid, saying they were appalled at the NHS supply chains, which they described as “knackered”.  

The comments from Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, that possibly incorrect scientific advice may have initially been followed, was leapt upon by the media as a minister ‘blaming the scientists’. Yet who, including scientists, can state categorically that any research into a new field is always certain? As the late Professor Sir Patrick Bateson said, “Only someone who was scientifically illiterate could argue that evidence from a new area of research was incontrovertible.”  To think there is always certainty in these situations is nonsense. Wouldn’t we expect ministers to adopt a change of direction if new scientific evidence came to light? 

Never mind that the nature of this particular virus, certainly as it affects humans, was completely unknown just a few months ago and that its origin and transmission has been deliberately covered up by China. Ignore the fact that in the space of a few weeks, seven Nightingale critical care hospitals were built. That a scheme to pay 80% of furloughed employees and the self-employed has been devised and implemented. That the threat of the NHS being overwhelmed, as hospitals were in other countries, was comfortably avoided, this even prompting questions about whether they were a waste of money! According to the media, the level of testing was highly unlikely to reach 100,000 per day and yet when the target was reached, they were the ‘wrong type of test’. Now, the testing is approaching 180,000 per day. Would just a little bit of praise hurt so much?

Ministers are rudely asked if they feel “ashamed” at the number of Covid-19 deaths, as if somehow they are directly responsible or have been deliberately negligent. The fact that the UK assesses deaths from coronavirus differently to other countries is known to the media and there will be a time to properly collate and compare numbers, but that doesn’t stop some in the media raising the ‘worst death rate in Europe’ line at every opportunity and with an almost a perverse delight. Piers Morgan constantly taunts Boris Johnson for not appearing on his TV show, as if the PM has nothing better to do. The ‘interviewing technique’ employed by Morgan, (the ex-editor of The Mirror, sacked for publishing fake photos of supposedly British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners) is to constantly shout at guests without letting them give a full answer. Why would anyone, let alone a politician, want to put themselves through that sort of tabloid TV show? 

No surprise that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for some on the left, the unions and, of course, Nicola Sturgeon, to all criticise or hinder the government. Not quite the spirit of unity some might expect.

The lockdown has had a devastating effect on lifestyles and jobs and rebuilding the economy will be a Herculean task for the government. Some people will cope better than others. Having never faced such a situation in living memory, perhaps we should all be a little less negative about those who are charged with dealing with the crisis and think hard on the words of Professor Graham Medley, who oversees mathematical modelling for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), “Sometimes the science is just informed guesswork.

The difficulty for certain journalists is that they can’t seem to grasp that fact or that everyone is feeling their way through this pandemic the best they can. Obviously, mistakes will be made, just as they have been during any conflict, but seeking to always apportion blame is counterproductive. It leads to an atmosphere of thinking we have no personal responsibility and any setback is always someone else’s fault. Thankfully, that fragility has not taken hold amongst most of the population, as demonstrated by the victory spirit shown up and down the country recently on the anniversary of VE Day. It reminded us the we are stronger than perhaps the media would have us believe. 

And next week is the 80th anniversary of the evacuation at Dunkirk – a super-human effort by the military and civilians working together against enormous odds – and the following week the 76th anniversary of D Day, another extraordinary endeavour. Once again, images of those days will strengthen our resolve in getting through this truly awful period; images that will do far more for the country than ‘celebrities’ crying because they are self-isolated in their multi-million-pound mansions.

No one is saying that the government shouldn’t be questioned or criticised. Mistakes will inevitably be made, as there always has been and always will be in any new venture, and there will be a time for detailed analysis as to how the pandemic was handled, but it is not now. 

If there is genuine blame to be apportioned, it should be laid at the door of the communist government of China. Their actions allowed this pandemic to be created in the first place and their subsequent deceit in answering legitimate questions has made things immeasurably worse. How the world reassesses its relationship with China after this is all over will be crucial, but that too is a matter for another day.

Jim Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter @jimbarrington