A crisis such as the present COVID-19 pandemic demands a response from us. Readers of this blog will be curious to know what a Wessex regional parliament, with the Wessex Regionalists as the dominant party, would have done differently in this situation. Such a question is almost impossible to answer, as hindsight is always 20/20, and a pandemic on this scale has been avoided for over a century. In keeping with our stated aim of always adhering to Ethical Politics, we will not claim – solely with the benefit of hindsight – that we would have handled the crisis better. Rather, we will keep to an analysis based on what has been our consistent policy over many years, highlighting what we would have done to be better prepared for such an event and what needs to happen in the future.
The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War was a whitewash. The inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of COVID-19 – when it is eventually conceded – will need to do better. The necessary evidence must be gathered and safeguarded now. There will be plenty of it. While the current crisis is unprecedented for most people now living, it was not unforeseen. In 2008, the National Security Strategy identified a pandemic as the highest civil emergency risk the UK faced. The 2015 update claimed that the Government had “detailed, robust and comprehensive plans in place and the necessary capacity” to deal with the problem. In 2018 the UK Biological Security Strategy proposed still more, including “providing a resilient and flexible production capability for medical countermeasures to infectious diseases”. There is even a 2011 NHS plan for pandemic influenza preparedness, with additions in 2012 and 2014. However, as the New Statesman recently reported, these plans lacked operational detail. The dummy run carried out in 2016, Exercise Cygnus, revealed woeful under-preparedness. Nothing was changed. And now we are where we are.
There are questions to be asked about why even such plans as there were took so long to be put into action, about how far anti-EU ideology got in the way of procurement (‘the dog ate the email’), and about the role of cronyism, with Tory backers Dyson and JCB being sounded out on ventilators while firms with existing products and expertise were ignored. Above and beyond, there are the fractured leadership and confused, contradictory communications brought on by not knowing which lie to defend next and for how long the pretence must be maintained. Johnson’s psychopathic policies, dictated by Classic Dom, have attracted international ridicule, yet his approval ratings remain impregnable. No doubt the search for someone else to blame when it all falls apart has already begun. His media backers will cover for him.
We are not conspiracy theorists. It is not necessary to believe that the coronavirus crisis was deliberately engineered by sinister shady forces. It is quite enough to believe that efforts will be made to ensure that the political and business opportunities presented by a crisis do not go to waste. We have seen Hungary’s parliament vote for an open-ended dictatorship and we know that our own mushrooming national debt will be glad tidings for bankers. Heavy-handed policing, and the accompanying curtain-twitching, contrast jarringly with a hands-off approach to airports and to packed public transport.
Wessex is behind the London curve but following the trend, with Hampshire and Devon being hotspots for some time now. Our region’s lack of control over its affairs is evident in the mass migration – and super-spreading – of second-home owners to their rural bolt-holes where they imagine greater safety and more food are to be had. In normal times, we welcome the opportunities that freedom of movement within Europe brings – we are not ‘Wessex Firsters’ pulling up the drawbridge – but these are not normal times. To stop spreading the virus, stop moving it about.
Being on an island off the north European coast was no protection against the Black Death arriving in Weymouth Harbour. Diseases travel – but they travel faster than ever in our increasingly inter-connected world where international trade has become the norm, with mass tourism and movements of people following behind the over-globalisation of industry. Just-in-time and just-in-sequence manufacturing is risky at the best of times. WR has always preached the benefits of local production for local need. Where it is necessary – and it will always be necessary – to trade internationally that would, under WR, have been on the basis of genuine Fair Trade, not the exploitation of workers in third world countries made to mass produce cheap goods to satisfy first world corporations’ pursuit of ever greater market share and profits. We have campaigned for community ownership of enterprises, against the concept of a free-for-all market, against automatic rights for corporations to do as they please, and against rampant consumerism. Travel and exchange between peoples of different countries undoubtedly helps to educate the world about each other’s cultures and is in principle a good thing. However, much of the travel industry is environmentally damaging. We have consistently pointed out that air travel is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; we have argued for a reduction in air travel and the removal of all tax exemptions and subsidies and against the expansion of airports. Air travel should be the last resort not first choice for travellers. Mass tourism is designed to make profits for suppliers not to enrich the knowledge of travellers. We accept that a WR world may be less inter-connected than the one we have, but it would be less chaotic and out of control. It would require more balanced regional economies, not weighted in favour of finance but in favour of prioritising health and well-being. The narrow logic of the market is not fit to rule over all.
Health and social care are under-resourced in part because of the relentless attack on public provision through the austerity measures imposed after the 2008 financial crisis. That crisis played into the hands of Tory governments determined to squeeze the role of the State in providing services without a profit margin. The financial crisis was itself born of the scrapping of precautionary regulations in the banking industry, a campaign started under a Thatcher Tory government and pursued with added vigour through the Labour Blair/Brown years, in parallel with similar moves in the USA. WR does not assume that red tape is just there for its own sake: it is often the result of painful past experience that if forgotten will have to be lived through again. The same is true of public spending at the level needed to sustain a functioning society. With a WR attitude we would have been better prepared, with health and social care systems resourced to the north European norm, not cut to the bone. We would also be part of a better integrated EU, able to work with our neighbours to share facilities and equipment on a rolling, highest-need basis. The UK has pulled out of anything medical that has ‘European’ in the name, so will suffer the consequences of its self-isolation. In the WR view, Europe is not an optional tier of government. The idea that communities should rally round is a good one but our neighbours on the grand scale are not just our street or village; they are our continent; political arrangements must reflect that.
What then is to be done? This will be the subject of our next post.