Coronavirus in our care homes – why does sorry seem to be the hardest word?

Special Agent Gibbs is the hero of NCIS.  A man of few words with his own traumatic past, he leads a team of agents with a passionate commitment to justice.  One of the unique things about Gibbs is that he has a rule for everything, a code to live by.  One of his best known rules is rule 6

“Never say you’re sorry”

It seems that we live in a world where so  many people live by that rule.  As Elton John once sang “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” This is particularly true about politicians. Getting a politician to say that they are sorry and take responsibility for something is like getting blood out of a stone. The best you might get is one of those non – apologies “I am sorry if you felt.”

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson was challenged by  Keir Starmer over the specific crisis within Care Homes caused by COVID-19.  Starmer quoted from the advice that had been given back in February that it was unlikely that the virus would get into Care Homes.

The Prime Minister claimed that Starmer was misquoting the advise given and this led to an exchange of letters between the two men later in the day with Starmer saying that the PM had mislead the House of Commons. Johnson fired back by accusing the Leader Of The Opposition of misrepresenting the advice by quoting selectively and missing the preceding qualifying statement. The fuller quote reads:

“This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected. This is the latest information and will be updated shortly.”

Now, here we have one of those situations typical of the games that politicians are playing games. The Prime Minister, to be fair to him, is right on one level, Keir Starmer was quoting selectively and does not allow for the context of the original guidance. The risk then is that this gets turned into a blame game and our party leaders just play political football. Such “gotcha” approaches to politics are not going to help us get to the truth of the matter and learn from the experience.  They will not help those grieving the loss of loved ones find comfort and they will not get us any closer to better protecting people in the future.

However, the Prime Minister’s response is also unhelpful here.  Yes, the advice was given on the basis of specific assumptions for a particular time period. Yes it was updated later. However, this does not change the fact that all the evidence we now have suggests that the evidence was wrong. Indeed, there were people at the time who considered the advice to be wrong. 

So, why couldn’t the Prime Minister apologise, recognise that the scientific advice was given with the best of intentions and based on the best information we had at the time but that it was wrong advise and may well have led to more deaths and more sickness?

Well, I think that it is for the same reasons that most of us struggle with the word sorry. There are two reasons here. The first is that we focus on blame. This goes back to the Fall where as soon as God challenged Adam and Eve in the Garden, they started blaming each other and the Serpent. We see it when children get into trouble: “It was her idea…” “He started it…” “Why aren’t you telling them off?”

We focus on blame and avoid taking responsibility. Responsibility is about owning my role for my actions and for events. It is about stepping forward and admitting my part.  I remember once that someone commented that when we say sorry, it may not be that we were to blame but it does mean that we were responsible.

There are all sorts of reasons why Boris may feel that he and the government were not to blame for the situation, particularly that it was context limited, based on information at the time and in fact the advice of independent scientific advisors not the political element of Government. However, this does not change the point that the advice was wrong and the Government and its ministers should take responsibility for what happens on their watch.

The other reason why we fail to take responsibility, focus on blame and struggle to say sorry is that we want to excuse of justify ourselves.  In other words, we live in fear because guilt is unbearable. This is part of the human condition and the only cure for it is the Gospel. The Bible teaches that if we put our trust in Jesus then our sin is forgiven and we are justified by faith. Justification means that we have a right standing with God, the status of righteous. We are loved by him and accepted into his family. This is permanent and we cannot lose it. This assurance should free us up to take responsibility for our own failings, to repent and say sorry without fear of the consequences because we are loved by God.

There is therefore a wider lesson to all of us, in what ways can knowing that we are justified enable us to own and admit to our own weaknesses and failures. But I want to come back to the specific issue of Care Homes again. I would ask both Boris and Johnson and Keir Starmer to take responsibility. As I have said before the current crisis is in my opinion symptomatic of the failure of all parties to take the social care situation seriously for years.  Please don’t make this a political football. Please do commit to being truthful, to seek to get to the bottom of what went wrong and to work together to put it right for the future.

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