The coronavirus frontline is far from Westminster
When I first started working with a Cabinet Minister, I made the decision to keep a daily diary for posterity. I was working alongside the Brexit Secretary at a historic time for the country. From the thrills of re-negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels, to the brutal defeats in Parliament; I knew I was in a lucky and privileged position to have a backstage seat on the frontline during a defining time in politics. It felt almost like a duty to capture the events and emotions as they unfolded.
On 31st January, following months of blood, sweat and tears (including a General Election), the country finally left the European Union, with the historic occasion marked in Downing Street and around the country. Coincidentally, on this same day the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the UK. Shortly after, everything changed.
Despite still working with a Cabinet Minister and the magnitude of what we're going through, I haven’t been keeping a diary these last few weeks. Perhaps, that’s because I’ve simply been too busy, or perhaps it’s because I no longer feel like I am on the ‘frontline’. Don’t be fooled by the daily press conference briefings from Number 10 and the extraordinary economic measures announced by the Treasury. Unlike Brexit, the frontline of this national challenge cannot be found in Westminster. The oak-clad meeting rooms of Downing Street and the opulent dining rooms in Parliament couldn’t be further from the sterile intensive care units and bustling hospital wards where this battle is really being fought.
When the history books judge this moment in time, it is inevitable that politicians' names will dominate the index pages. The PM incapacitated by the virus, a Conservative Chancellor directly paying the wages of workers, the President determined to make political hay out of the crisis – and who knows what is still to come. But just as we do with the soldiers who fought for our freedom during two World Wars, this country is likely to honour and remember those who are risking their health on a daily basis to meet the demands that this virus is creating. Clapping at 8pm on a Thursday night seems like just the beginning.
When Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, said that “the NHS is the closest thing English people have to religion” he did so out of frustration. Contrary to the claims that Labour make at election time about privatisation, the truth is the NHS is politically impossible to reform. It is a sprawling and unwieldy organisation, not by choice but by political design. Whereas reforms to other public bodies pass by without fanfare, proposed changes to the NHS have always been greeted with scepticism and resistance.
For better or worse, the British public’s steadfast reverence for the Health Service has only been further cemented by this pandemic and Westminster has taken note.
National newspapers are campaigning to give NHS workers a medal. Businesses are clamouring to give frontline health workers discounts. As admirable as these initiatives are, it is more important that politicians fulfil their promises to properly equip, fund and staff the NHS for years to come. This can be the positive and lasting legacy from this horrible chapter in our nation’s story.