The time to Question

When at the weekend the leader of the New Zealand centre Right National Party Simon Bridges criticised PM Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the crisis, the media covering it  pretty much immediately received 24,000 complaints.  So I write with a degree of nervousness! 

Bridges, perhaps predictably for a right wing politician ,was arguing against the extension of New Zealand’s lockdown on the grounds of the damage to the economy . Early in the crisis Bridges criticised the Government saying that it didn’t have a comprehensive plan “like the UK has” to deal with a pandemic  .  

They are an Island Nation we are an Island  Nation. New Zealand has just under 5 million people, the UK has 66.5 million.  At the time of writing New Zealand has 14 deaths 11 people in hospital and 3 in ICU. You  can do the maths .  Ardern just points to the statistics. Like most countries they are looking at Germany, Korea and, by contrast, Japan, Spain and Italy to see what the best next step is.  

As indeed, are we. We all need to get it right, we are as successful in this as today’s statistics while tomorrow is another, worrying, day . 

But as we do that we need also to look back at the handling of this crisis and ask some questions. And sorry,  but now is the time. 

Some of those questions need debate in the future some are far more pressing .  

I would argue a question  about the quality of  political transparency in a crisis, is necessary to discuss right now . 

The lack of continuity in visual leadership has contributed to concerns here . There may be a plan but when  Westminster press conferences are handled by Uncle Tom Cobley and all there is precious little continuity . It doesn’t help of course when some of the principles either stand there like frighted rabbits in the headlights or worse like the Home Secretary whose performance will probably feature in “ how not to do it “  elements of Media training for the foreseeable future.  

Some have come out of it with credit . I have never been entirely convinced  of Matt Hancock’s  competence but in this  he comes across as sometimes perplexed but concerned and  genuinely trying while Rishi Sunak, shows polished competence . Whether his economic interventions work, remains to be seen, but the speed of their implementation so shortly after his elevation to position  suggests he understands the word leadership and is to his credit.  

By contrast the Scottish Press conferences are a bit dour, but they offer detail and are delivered with a sense of compassion, leadership and genuine engagement with the questioning . It helps that ,bar one, they have all been lead by the First Minister . Although some have tried,  it is both in inappropriate and unacceptable, to criticise Johnson for being ill.  

But it is also about style .  

Too often the Westminster Press conferences have seen Ministers  in political campaign mode not crisis management mode.  As if they can’t shake off the Election.  It is ironic, there is no point in trying to deflect blame when no-one is offering it. Now precisely because that has been their style, people are.

Now is the time to say “ ok, we got this right but that wrong and here is what we are doing,  please help us achieve that .” If you need leadership of that style look at President Macron. An apology doesn’t hurt.  

Far, far too often in the face of clear, obvious shortfalls  politicians have tried to defend the indefensible. Avoidance of criticism at all costs .  Misspeaking and over promising are two descriptors of their performance, some folk might have others. 

Questions like “ where was Boris for 5 Cobra meetings” may have perfectly acceptable answers but the way to deal with that question is not to deny its legitimacy. 

Nor is it a question for the future because when Ministers speak of the  current criticality to deliver HS2 and to conclude the Brexit deal it brings into question their ;  prioritisation, areas of attention and capacity  to  deal with the matter in hand .  It is reasonable to ask what our politicians are doing at this time . 

Questioning the approach to PPE procurement when there are shortages right now is  legitimate. Again and again Ministers have resorted to meaningless  statistical bamboozling  as a response. But here is the rub  five  zillion gowns remains one too little if  the care worker who dies for a lack of them is the five zillion and first.  

Responding  to this by committing to finding out ” at some point in the future “why NHS and Care workers died of C19 sounds possibly unfairly but worryingly,  like an attempt to deflect responsibility . In the minds of care workers ,doctors and nurses it is about PPE and that is all that counts right now. They need answers  and; credible, comforting certainty of action, now.

This is a slippery slope. If responses on one topic turn out to be inaccurate , then our capacity to believe subsequent but accurate claims is tested to the limit .

So it is legitimate to ask “ why did you say gowns were arriving from Turkey on Sunday when Turkey says you didn’t order them until Sunday ?” 

By contrast this morning I heard a Junior Minister, Simon Clarke, comment  “ look this PPE issue is really tough right now ” You are right it is, credit to you that you gave a straight forward response rather than claim to be ahead of an agenda that is slipping away from your control. . 

“ Why is it that with months of preparation available to us it is taking so long to know how many people have died in Care Homes in England? “ 

That is a very legitimate question as morning after morning we hear the utterly heartbreaking stories of care workers paying for their dedication with their lives. Every moment when we do not report a death in a care home is to undervalue that person’s humanity and the role of their carers . Saying it’s tough to work out, day after day,  doesn’t hack it,  for the sake of common decency, make a plan, give an accurate and crucially , up to date number. 

For me the peak of inappropriateness was Michael Gove’s histrionic and petulant  performance on Sky and the Marr shows where he said that to ask the question  about Johnson and Cobra was “ Grotesque “ It did neither him Johnson, or indeed the audience any favours .  

It isn’t the role of the media to offer politicians sycophantic acceptance of their position. It is quite possible to hold a Government to account while being supportive . In my view the UK media has done the latter  part well but has lacked persistence and urgency in the former .  

In the future we will have other questions to ask; 

“ What was our level of preparation?”  

“Were we preparing for the right kind of pandemic and was it even possible to do that ?“ 

“ Is, just- in- time, an appropriate purchasing policy for PPE and should there have been a better stock pile ?” 

“ Did we really need the extra hospitals?”  

“ Should we have invested in testing earlier?”  

“Did we get the balance between health and economics right ?”  

There is also I think a critical question of ourselves whether we are politicians or ordinary voters  :-

“In the balance between ;taxes, personal income, economic planning  and funding the welfare system what does UK Coronavirus 2020 say  about how we have valued our low paid key workers and especially those in the shadow lands of our inadequately funded care system ? “ 

Perhaps there is a more important question “ ….and what are we going to about it ?” Resetting to  the old “ normal “ would be obscene . 

To return to our Kiwi friends,  one thing that Bridges and Ardern share is that they have both taken a pay cut in solidarity with their citizens. 

Symbolic or patronising ?  

I’d say little things count .  

“ Kia kaha, kia Ora “  – Stay Strong, Keep well 

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  1. Here I go…

    Maybe I am hopelessly innocent in some kind of way….maybe I’m ridiculously optimistic….

    Boris Johnson was ill, very ill. He came through his illness due to the care and attention of NHS workers. I won’t go off on one about the position they are in – many have done and are doing that already.

    So, Boris Johnson comes out of hospital, and I am hopeful. I am hopeful that…..

    He will now value the NHS and its workers and not dream of having any kind of deal with America, which would include the NHS, in any way. The NATIONAL Health Service – National – of the people, owned by the people, for the people. I actually thought this might be the case

    Also, Steve, you mention the PPE from Turkey. Various countries in Europe, have be supportive of Britain – what has America done?

    I also had it in my head, that Boris Johnson might think, Hmmm, who are our actual friends and allies? And, that he might approach the leaders of the EU and say, OK, if it’s not too late, can we be part of the EU again?

    And then, what happened? He’s barely out of danger, when he links up with Trump and they got all chummy again.

    Allegedly, a spokesman said: “President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson reaffirmed their close cooperation through the G7 and G20 to reopen global economies and ensure medical care and supplies reach all those in need… [they] also discussed bilateral and global issues, including our shared commitment to reaching a United States-United Kingdom free trade agreement.”…

    This….makes me….sick.

    You might notice I’ve stopped referring to him a The Eton Mess – he is beyond a joke.

  2. All good points. I read another critique of questioning govt policy- both Westminster and Scottish- that the most effective questions are the ones requiring specific answers, not politically framed ones already assuming wrongdoing. The answers, or even the avoidance of answers, should tell us what we need to know.

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