It is okay to disagree

In the past, I’ve challenged a number of the assumptions that lie behind some of the (in my opinion) wilder accusations thrown at the Government’s handling of Coronavirus strategy. This could make it sound like I believe all is rosy in the garden  and that there are no problems. It might also suggest that I’m just going to sit back and agree with the Government come what may.  Well, it is important to be clear that disagreement with some criticism and agreement with some action so far does not mean I agree with everything and always do.

So here are some thoughts from my perspective. Remember (in case you were likely to forget) that I’m not writing as an expert in viruses and epidemics (or really in anything). I’m just a member of the public hearing and observing all the evidence and decision making presented. I’m also someone with a little bit of awareness of things like systems, processes, data and measurement from my days in industry and in human behaviour and culture both from then and from my experience as a pastor.

Additionally, I want to suggest that the lessons are not just from where the Government might have done things differently or better but wider society more generally.

So here are my concerns and questions.

First of all, right at the start, I was not convinced we would need a full lock down here or that it would be the healthiest thing. Here’s why. Firstly, I believed that tighter controls at the borders, quarantining and testing of people coming in from hotspots would happen and enable effective control.  On that note, I wonder whether the desperate urge to repatriate people from hot-spots fuelled by the media was wise. Wouldn’t it have made sense to look after people in the hotspot contexts? Secondly, I was concerned about the effects of lockdown and isolation on people that might create other risks. As I argued early on, there is more than one way to die.  Thirdly, from a systems perspective, given the Government was aiming to manage capacity and demand, I had question-marks about whether or not trying to push/schedule a virus through the NHS was even feasible and would not create other distortions.  Indeed I suspect that measure to increase capacity such as moving NHS resources around and setting up the Nightingale wards was far more important.

The second concern I had, and I don’t think I am alone in this was how as a society we responded to the early measures to enable social distancing and to protect the most vulnerable.  It meant that in the run up to lockdown, we still had people heading to the seaside and the national parks. It meant on Mother’s Day people headed off to see mum, no doubt taking the virus into Care Homes too. There was some confusion over communication too at that point. I’m not sure the Government was solely at fault, I don’t think the media have been at all helpful throughout and I think even healthcare workers and experts were giving differing and conflicted views.

Thirdly, the Government should have specified what was needed in terms of key workers from the journalism sector.  I think we have ended up with highly paid, celebrity commentators, primarily engaged in political news seeking to justify their position  and so they have continued to treat the whole thing as a political drama. It has been a shameful period for the news media and has neither helped to communicate information correctly or scrutinise the Government effectively. To be honest, it would have been better to keep a level of political scrutiny through MPs. I think we should have also seen our dear commentators take a break including a twitter sabbatical and handed over the news to correspondents with training and expertise in the relevant fields.

Fourthly, and linked to the third. We have a culture that doesn’t understand maths and statistics and lacks curiosity. That means we are more susceptible to the extremes of panic and complacency. It has not helped the media reporting at all. This is a long term factor which you cannot turn around over night but all those times when people complained about the useless maths they would never need and how all kids needed to know was to count money are coming back to bite us.

Fifthly, another long term issue is our social care situation. We will have to look back carefully at what happened in our care homes. We have known for a long time that there were problems with the future sustainability of social care financially and a debate was ducked in the 2017 General Election. The media and all political parties need to carry some of the blame for this. Theresa May for introducing it in such a clumsy way, the Conservatives for running from the subject, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for being opportunistic and the media for turning it into scare headlines. However, we now know that it was not just about finance but about structures, support, communication, decision making and relationship to the wider health care process.

Sixthly, looking forward I am nervous about how the way out of lockdown is being handled. We do not want to go just go back to the old normal, we have learnt  some good things and we don’t want to leave too quickly creating a second surge. We know it will take time but I worry when I hear everyone, politicians, the media and worst of all church leaders talking us into a “new normal.” There are two things wrong with this, first because we may end up avoiding a debate about what is truly necessary and allow temporary but required authoritarian measures to become permanent. Secondly, however long measures are in place, let’s not call them normal, let’s not normalise isolation and social distancing.  Let’s not normalise church on line. These things should never become normal. We are seeing some horrific phrases arising out of this crisis and I put “the new normal” up there with “social distancing.”

Seventhly, the other concern I have about the future is to do with that word “suppression.” We have followed suppression tactics with the disease. Now the thing about those suppression tactics is that despite what some think, they are not intended to kill it, unless we get lucky and other factors mean it is suffocated. Further, the thing about suppressing things is that what we push down tends to bounce up again. That’s partly why there are concerns about a second wave.  However, remember that it is not only the virus that has been suppressed by a blunt instrument approach. We have suppressed the economy, we have suppressed pollution and we have also suppressed human behaviour. We may be very happy if the economy bounces back quickly (personally I think that if there aren’t other factors then it should). However if pollution bounces back, it could be worse than before. Most of all, I am concerned about he suppression of human social behaviour and the risk that this will bounce back in an uncontrolled and unhealthy way. We are approaching long hot summer nights and for example, I remember similar nights a few years back when we watched out city burning as riots and looters took over the nights. There is also the risk that if planned, legitimate gatherings don’t happen then unplanned ones will happen and agitators will stir them up. We need to get this right.

So, seven things I have concerns about. That probably isn’t an exhaustive list but I hop it shows that it is possible as lay people to engage constructively but also critically, supporting efforts to fight the virus but being ready to challenge where necessary.

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