Richard North, 22/09/2020  
 


Someone far more cynical than I might suggest that the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases is rather convenient for the denizens of Downing Street. Otherwise a certain Mrs May might be on the front pages, causing Mr Johnson serious embarrassment.

As it is, Mrs May's attacks on the "reckless" Internal Market Bill and her warning of "untold damage" to the UK is consigned to the inside pages and the intellectual desert of Sky News.

In fact, from dominating the headlines only a few days ago, Brexit has almost disappeared – again. The virus has captured the attention of the fourth estate, which needs no persuading to abandon the complications of leaving the EU for the more entertaining (in journalistic terms) prospect of a resurgent Covid pandemic.

One can see the likes of The Times positively slavering in anticipation of the carnage to come, with the headline: "UK on course for tens of thousands of deaths and six months of restrictions, experts warn".

As we come to the end of September, six months takes us almost to the end of March, and those heartless cynics who are thinking in terms of convenience, might also be struck by the fact that this gets us well past the end of the transition period.

If the quasi-lockdown, that isn't a lockdown, has the anticipated effect of dampening down economic activity, then it will tend to mask the worst effects of TransEnd, and therefore buy time for our political masters to cobble together an alibi to explain away the disaster, while seeking measures to mitigate its effects.

At this late stage, those wicked cynics might be tempted to suggest that, if coronavirus didn't already exist, it might have to be invented. But that, of course, is not the case – this is an entirely natural phenomenon which owes absolutely nothing to the incompetence of the government.

Then, apart from anything else, it stretches the bounds of credulity to suggest that this government would engineer an incompetent response to Covid, just to cover up its incompetence on Brexit. For it even to think of so doing is a contradiction in terms, as it verges on competence, albeit at a Machiavellian level.

What we must come to terms with, therefore, is that the confluence of the Brexit and Covid disasters must be regarded as a coincidence – a thesis that makes more sense. As the government has been incompetent in its handling of Brexit, it stands to reason that its management of the Covid epidemic would also be deficient.

The troubling thing about this is the media's inability to focus on more than one thing at a time. Most of the newspaper titles and all the broadcasters have become versions of the Covid Gazette. We complain of the NHS having become the CTS (Covid Treatment Service) but the media is just as bad.

Certainly, if you are watching the BBC TV news these days, it is hard to discern that there is anything else happening in the entire world, apart from Covid – unless you have a special interest in the victim statements from the Manchester bombing inquest.

However, some Brexit news does manage to trickle though the editorial filters, such as the report that the UK has so far failed to negotiate access to the European passporting scheme for banks.

The immediate practical effect of this is that thousands of expats (estimated to be between 150,000 to 300,000  in France alone) who hold accounts with UK-based banks have been told that their accounts will be closed and credit cards withdrawn.

This is happening because some of these banks have decided it's not worth the hassle of licensing new operations within the territories of the EU Member States, as they will be required to do if they administer accounts of people domiciled in those states.

The relative paucity of news on Brexit, however, is in stark contrast to the torrent of stories we were getting in the immediate aftermath of Cameron's 2015 general election victory, when many papers were carrying two or three stories a day, every day, topped up by frequent opinion pieces.

Without Covid, I would warrant, we would by now be experiencing a steady flow of Brexit-related stories in the countdown to the end of the transition period. But now, all the government has to do to keep Brexit out of the news – or way down the running order – is to ramp up the activity on Covid.

That desire to keep Brexit out of the news could in some way have affected the timing of the Whitty-Vallance show yesterday, where we were regaled with tales of 50,000 cases by mid-October, and 200 deaths a day shortly afterwards.

Yet, although these sombre figures have captured all of today's front-page headlines, from memory I seem to recall figures of 500,000 being touted around during early March, with many more deaths.

Then, we had Chris Whitty, in a solo performance, offering a worse-case scenario of 80 percent of people becoming infected, with 95 percent of all cases occurring within a nine-week period. Of those, he forecast that between 15-20 percent might need hospital care, with ten percent of the total case load requiring a period in a critical care bed.

Half of coronavirus cases in the UK, he said, were likely to occur over just three weeks, as he painted lurid pictures of the NHS not having enough beds to cope with them. There was a "slim to zero" chance of avoiding a global pandemic which could see "huge pressure" on the NHS, making it impossible for everyone who needs a bed to get one.

Contrasting with these blood-curdling predictions in March, what Whitty has to offer at the moment seems relatively benign and, if his predictions are as accurate this time as they were last time he put on his soothsayer's hat, we don't have so very much to worry about.

The current alarm, however, has given Johnson yet another opportunity to play the statesman, conveniently shedding the embarrassment of his law-breaking on the UK Internal Market Bill, as he takes on the role of our beneficent saviour, stepping into the breach to protect us from this modern-day plague.

That will place Johnson centre-stage in the media today, the focus of saturation media coverage as he announces new restrictions, which will include early pub closing and a return to home working. For that, we have to suffer a television address as the man acts out his part as a concerned statesman, leading the way to safety.

Putting all this in perspective, when we go way back to 7 June 1944, the day after D-day when the news had been released to the public, the invasion coverage dominated the front pages, but there was still plenty of coverage of other issues.

It is something of that spirit that we need to see returning. We really do need a media which is capable of reporting more than one issue at a time, and one that can keep its eye on several balls at the same time.

Whatever one's view of Covid, Brexit is still important and, if there is a successful vaccine developed for the disease, by next year it might be history. Unfortunately, there are no plans to produce a vaccine for Brexit, and there is no known antidote.

Covid, therefore, should not be allowed to obscure developments on Brexit. Our right to be informed means that we need more than just plague journals. Our media needs to do its job across the board.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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