‘Life will never be the same again’

Lord Digby Jones reflects on the unforgettable events of the past five months.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, which counts Covid-related deaths differently to England. (28568484)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, which counts Covid-related deaths differently to England. (28568484)

IT WAS five months ago this week that reality dawned.

It was mid-March and the jokes about coronavirus being linked to pop drinks or cigars began to peter out as the capability of this nasty disease to kill people hit hard, here and in the UK.

Entire populations went into shock; few could believe all this was really happening, as previously unfamiliar words such as ‘lockdown’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ entered common usage. ‘Social distancing’ arrived for us all, creating a new normal in the psychology of that most sociable of the animal kingdom, mankind.

What happened next, and what’s happened since, has changed attitudes and changed lives. Some things have altered temporarily, some forever. There have been heroes and villains, reputations have been made or broken ... and ‘experts’ and the media have had a field day.

As Guernsey clocks up its century of case-free days (and, as all successful batsmen do when the 100 runs click up on the scoreboard, it takes a fresh guard, inspects field-placings anew and banishes fatal complacency) let us look back, here and in the UK, over the spring and summer of 2020 – a period in our lives, in our history, that we will always remember.

No one will ever forget 2020. There were those who lost loved ones and could not benefit from the necessary ritual and a degree of closure that a proper funeral brings. Of that I have personal experience as my 96-year-old Mum died in a Warwickshire care home in May. The technology worked and we watched the 10 mourners attend the cremation from our Guernsey home – I do hope she didn’t mind her son attending her funeral in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet!

The UK entered the surreal world of a Conservative Government paying people not to work. The scientists had a televised field day and, as Labour indulged in internecine warfare (nothing new there then) and elected a new leader by remote, journalists from Sky and the BBC vied with each other to see who could be the most vicious, unreasonable and biased interrogators at the daily press conferences, taking over the mantle of Her Majesty’s Opposition and failing to relate to the nation’s mood as people endured many a hardship in a spirit of national unity.

We got out on the streets and applauded those fabulous frontline staff in the NHS. But old problems didn’t disappear – NHS procurement was slow and inefficient and it took the Army to show how to build a hospital in record time (anything Beijing can do...).

We entered a new world of Zoom and Teams and discovered just how much can be achieved without travelling. And millions used the saved time to exercise, a habit which will hopefully stick as the perils of obesity hit home, not least in the harsh direct link between being overweight or having Type 2 Diabetes and being at greater risk of joining the list of Covid-related deaths.

So the new normal has its contrasts: alcohol sales went through the roof but walking, running and cycling did too, as people learned, in a world of less stress, to value ‘outside’. Nature’s tug on our lead was here to stay as we valued less pollution and fresh air. Working from home has its limits – the social intercourse and unacknowledged competitive atmosphere of the workplace are very necessary, indeed mental health issues feature where no amount of Zooming (good as it is) can compensate for the real thing. Innovation and fresh ideas often flow from chats ‘around the water cooler’ but the workforce has seen at first hand the benefits of working from home (not least enhanced productivity) and change has arrived forever. Working from home a couple of days a week, every week; staggering commuting times; conducting only one out of three of those regular business trips in person. Great news for family life, health, diet and the environment. Bad news for landlords (that’s your and my pension funds), airlines and business hotels.

Fundamental change in the airline industry must come. With a business model that covers overheads in the back of the plane and makes profit from Business Class seeing the enduring change of less frequent business travel, we are bound to see fewer and differently-configured planes operated by merged airlines as national naming rights take second place to survival.

We have come to question facts put before us as never before. The unaccountable, greedy, tax-avoiding monoliths that are Facebook (owner of Instagram and WhatsApp), Twitter and Google are finally being subjected to a sustained attack for their abuse of dominant market positions and for behaving as the editing publishers that their ‘we are only platforms’ models decree they are not.

The veracity of Covid league tables have been shown to be hugely questionable. Who believes the figures from China or Iran? It is farcical that England counts, and publishes, as a Covid-related death any subsequent death of someone who had tested positive – even if the person who tested positive made a full recovery and died months (years?!) later in a car crash. Unbelievable.

In Scotland it is different. The State of Sturgeon counts a death as Covid-related if the person who tested positive dies from any cause whatsoever in the 28 days after the positive test results. Thereafter, north of the border, even if the person who tested positive dies of Covid ... er, Nicola says they didn’t. And then she crows about better figures than England. You couldn’t make it up.

We are going to see a Keynesian plan for recovery, with massive government investment in infrastructure stimulating employment and enhancing productivity. But a nation’s human infrastructure counts just as highly, if not more so. How dare the Teachers’ Unions deny children an education as they sacrifice kids’ futures on the altar of politicising Covid. A teacher stands more chance of dying in a car accident as he or she drives to school than of dying from coronavirus, but the union will not let the facts get in the way of enjoying the limelight, playing God with the nation’s future generation and causing problems for their political enemies. If professionals are defined as people who put the interests of their clients ahead of their own, those who lost respect for teachers a long time ago have had all their prejudices fulfilled.

Whoever would have thought it? Certainly not Boris as just a few months ago he basked in the glory of winning a thumping majority and took the UK out of the EU. Now he’s coping with a once-in-a-century pandemic where everyone criticises from the lofty perches of hindsight, he very nearly died (as we look back, we should not underestimate the effect that had), he faces Her Majesty’s newly-led and invigorated Loyal Opposition with its appeal to moderation and change, and his supporter in the White House flirts with farce as he faces defeat in November’s election. No, it was never meant to be like this, was it Prime Minister?

So as I sit here on the top of the cliffs above Gouffre, early on this glorious Guernsey summer’s morning, I look back over the past few months and realise life for us all, for the UK, for the world, will never be the same again. It certainly won’t be for Pat and me – we made our mind up a few months ago and are now full-time residents here on your (may I call it ‘our’?) island. Thank you for having us. Thank you for making us feel so welcome, so safe, so secure. Thank you for your courtesy. Thank you for showing every day that you respect values more than prices.

But I close with a heartfelt plea ... please can we do something about those small, extremely noisy motorbikes? Not the big ones. I mean the little ones, doing their best to impersonate a hairdryer on speed, ridden by teenaged members of the ‘let’s selfishly make as much loud noise as possible and damn everyone else’ sect. A properly enforced noise-abatement order would do the trick.

There ... I feel better now! Enjoy your August.

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