Coronavirus is coming. Unlike most of what we see, hear and read in the news, this is not something that’s only really about other people. People we don’t know anyway. One way and another, it could directly affect us all. Which, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, is why Boris Johnson has awoken from his apparent slumber.
‘Below the thunders of the upper deep, far far beneath in the abysmal sea, his ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep the Kraken sleepeth.’
Lord Tennyson’s poem, not about the Light Brigade for a change, concerns a sea monster with the annoying habit of having ships and sailors for brekkie.
The creature had a knack of popping up when least expected. Which is why it feels reminiscent of no-show Bojo – suddenly surfacing last week.
But pop up he did. Alongside top experts to talk about the potential pandemic threatening lives and lifestyles across the world.
The one-time Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, he of the hilarious eyebrows, was fond of the term ‘silly-billy’. Unlike most politicians, who pretend to be cleverer than they are, he would make out he was, well, sillier.
Without wishing to take sides about whether our Prime Minister’s a fiendish charlatan or fearless champion, he shares that with Healey.
Which is why he chose to rise, Kraken-like, just before the alarming rise in Coronavirus victim numbers in UK, and the country’s first fatalities.
Also why he ditched all this nonsense so beloved of Brexiteer diehards that all experts should be expunged. Push comes to shove, we need them.
Cue the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty. Riding to the rescue. Or at least looking and sounding like it.
Though he’s only been in the job for a few months, he happens to be an epidemiologist who has spent years studying how diseases spread.
Plus he’s turning out to be a surprisingly good talker, endowed with what his fans call a ‘famously big brain’.
And, certainly, he’s going to need all his little grey cells in the near future, as he grapples with imponderables way beyond his normal brief.
Like, how do you stop people from getting in a tizzy while simultaneously making them a bit afraid? And prepared to do something about it.
The advice is to forget Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer. We are NOT doomed. Stick instead with Lance Corporal Jones. Don’t panic. Especially in the shops.
This stuff generates its own momentum. If everyone thinks there’ll be a shortage of something, hey presto, there will be. Notice how we go a bit bananas at Christmas? Forgetting doors will only close for a few hours.
That said, backers of the new Bond movie have already decided the buck could stop at a bank near them and called off the film’s release until they can be pretty sure it won’t be screening to empty houses.
Loads of sports fixtures could well go the same way. As well as other big public events.
And millions of us might skip that sunny break in Italy, now that those who did go recently have been told to self-isolate if they feel under the weather.
But parliament? Potentially shutting up shop from Easter till autumn? Golly, how’s that going to look to folk anxiously carrying on regardless?
Still, when you think about it, MP’s spend half their time hissing and spitting at one another in Westminster and the other half glad-handing their punters. Superspreaders? Hmm …
But what about the work they’re supposed to be doing? To deadlines? Like at least half sorting a Brexit trade deal with the EU by the summer.
Tricky one, that. Enough to get a chap at his wits’ end. Even one as canny as Whitty. Yet, in theory, it will be his call.
The matter could yet be taken out of his freshly washed hands, however. With the first cases of Covid-19 already connected to institutions in Brussels, the chances of the talks going to schedule look pretty skinny.
Besides which, if we really do see offices and factories temporarily closing, as well as people eating and drinking at home instead of away, the economy will take a battering.
Begs the question – do we really want to be saddled with a no-deal Brexit and the hammer blow that would inflict on the nation’s finances? On top of everything else?
Never mind getting Brexit done, that’d be more a case of getting done in.
And, even more pressingly, the new Chancellor may have unpalatable food for thought regarding this week’s budget.
He’ll have to think about tax holidays for small businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, that could go otherwise to the wall for lack of custom.
Sound melodramatic? Tell that to the bosses and employees at the late lamented airline Flybe, the catalyst of whose collapse was – surprise, surprise – punter deficiency brought on by Coronavirus.
And then there’s the other hole in the nation’s pocket, caused by a rejigging of the sick pay regime for the benefit of people self-isolating to ward off the virus.
Sadly, many of those most in need of help, folk on the lowest pay and shortest contracts, look like slipping through the net. Maybe that’ll get sorted too. Or maybe not.
There’s also an awful lot of mummies or daddies who might have to take time off work because the little sweeties aren’t at school. Because the gates are closed.
Not forgetting the NHS. Envy of the world and all that, and on the brink of becoming spanglier than ever if we’re to believe a word Bojo says.
Now let’s get real here. It’s creaking and groaning, splitting at the seams. Has been for years. No wonder the policy’s to try and hold off the worst until the weather gets warmer and the threat less acute. Hopefully.
But every cloud has a silver lining.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s in a pretty pickle right now, what with everyone ganging up, accusing her of shouting, swearing, bullying and belittling them. One civil servant even, allegedly, driven to attempting suicide.
In response, Bojo staged another, rare, guest appearance last week, this time at Prime Minister’s question time, to say he was right beside her.
Which he was, given that she happened to be perched beside him in the commons. Funny coincidence, that.
The official strategy on Coronavirus is: Contain, delay, research and mitigate’. But it could also help keep poor, delicate, misunderstood Ms Patel in a job.
Unlike Krakens, accusations against ministers tend to pop up in parliament. A risk mitigated if it’s not actually sitting.
Downing Street is nearly a mile away from Marsham Street, home to the Home Office. If she’s entrenched there, Bojo will no longer be by her side.
But he won’t need to be. Seeing as there won’t be anyone around to say beastly things about her anyway. Nor will she be anywhere near the place.
‘The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.’
That fat Falstaff character used the line magnificently to justify his cowardice on the battlefield in Shakespeare’s play Henry Four Part One.
But it could well serve a turn for keeping La Patel’s career alive too.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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