How to stop a pandemic

Take very special note of those last three words in Devi Sridhar’s quoted remarks. The words “chains of infection” provide the most apt description of the problem. We must break all chains of infection so as to be able to claim a measure of success. Obviously, we have had considerable success. But as long as one chain remains it can grow and branch and grow again.

The only certain way to break chains of infection is to starve the virus of new hosts. The only effective way to do this is to isolate everybody and keep them isolated until there are no more chains of infection. If this is not possible, then you get as close to it as you can. Success in eradicating the virus from a population is a function of the degree of success in achieving total isolation.

Isolation happens at the level of the individual and takes two form – distance and barrier. Or, obviously, some combination of the two. The more effectively distance is maintained the less need there is for some form of barrier – which could be anything from a simple face-mask to a full Hazmat suit. The converse is also true. Distance isolation hardly matters if you’re fully suited up. But the less complete and reliable the barrier isolation the more need there is to maintain distance isolation.

All of which sounds like little more than ‘common sense’. But the most important bit is yet to come. Because all chains of infection must be broken, and because there is no way to know if you are a link in a chain of infection until after you’ve functioned as a link and because you have no way of knowing if the chain of infection you might be on will be broken by someone else, you have to proceed as if you are a link in a chain of infection and must be the break. You be the break in the chain of infection by implementing the strictest isolation you are capable of and maintaining it as long as possible.



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I have questions

Like many people in Scotland, I suspect, I have been struggling to come to terms with a seemingly inexplicable contradiction. I can illustrate the problem with a couple of comments culled from Twitter – both from Nicola Sturgeon. (Ignore the BBC Tweets as you would normally.)

The first is a near-perfect political statement. The wording, the tone, the content, the entire package is almost flawless. I’d advise any politician to avoid phrases such as “I’ve made clear”. If you have made something clear then it should be clear and it must therefore be entirely redundant to state that you’ve made it clear. If you feel the need to state that you’ve made it clear then this can only be because you haven’t, in fact, made it clear at all. Or so people will tend to assume. It is one of those overused phrases which have come to suggest the very opposite of what it says. It’s the kind of thing people use when they want to caricature a generic politician. Unless you want to be that caricature, don’t say “I’ve made it clear”. You might as well end every statement with the words “Honest! Would I lie to you?”.

A textual analysis of that first post would strongly suggest an exceptionally astute politician and a very capable communicator. It’s hard to believe that the second example was authored by the same person. The words “It’s got nothing to do with the constitution” would be woefully naive enough coming from any politician. But from the leader of a party which has a fundamental constitutional issue at its very core, it is nothing short of jaw-droppingly stupid.

The leader of a party which has as its principal aim the restoration of Scotland’s independence should never be caught talking down the importance of constitutional matters. Their every instinct should be tuned to emphasising the overarching importance of the constitution. Because the constitution is about who decides. It is about where power lies and how it is used. It is about political legitimacy and authority. The constitution, and any issues or questions relating thereto, takes precedence over all matters of policy. It must do. Because the constitution defines, describes and delineates decision-making authority in all matters of policy. It is senseless to claim that anything has “nothing to do with the constitution” because the constitution has something to do with everything.

It is a doubly foolish remark on account of the angry denial of constitutional relevance being immediate followed by an observation which points up the relevance of the constitution as well as anything might. When Nicola Sturgeon says “the ‘stay at home’ message remains in place in 3 of the 4 UK nations” she is referring explicitly and directly to the constitutional issue of policy decision-making power. The contradiction is jarring. The statement as a whole speaks of a politician quite unlike the one revealed by the first Tweet. It suggests a politician who simply doesn’t understand the function and purpose of the constitution. How can the person who is so dismissive of the constitution possibly be the leader of a party whose constitution declares its first aim to be arguably the most fundamental constitutional reform there can be?

That is the nub of it. That is what I and others find both perplexing and disturbing. On the one hand we have someone who is all but universally acknowledged to be an outstanding politician. Someone who earns all the plaudits that come her way. Someone who deserves the trust that is placed in her by the public. Someone who, with due regard for her feminist credentials, is worthy of being described as ‘statesmanlike’.

On the other hand we have someone who bears ultimate responsibility for bringing the independence campaign to a grinding halt. It can readily and persuasively be argued that the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence has gone backwards under her stewardship. We look at Nicola Sturgeon’s record as First Minister and see mostly uncommon competence. We look at her record as de facto leader of the independence movement and see only serial misjudgement. We watch in admiration her handling of the current public health crisis. We watch in horror her handling of the constitutional issue. It’s as if we are looking at two different people.

Retiring SNP MSP James Dornan is also perplexed, it seems. If I understand aright from his column in The National, Mr Dornan is baffled by the fact that some people who in his opinion “should know better” are troubled by the ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ situation described above. He seems to be perplexed about why we are perplexed about the perplexing contradictions in Nicola Sturgeon’s comments and the curate’s egg of her performance.

In keeping with this incomprehension, Mr Dornan seems unable to distinguish between the SNP as an administration and the SNP as a political party. Not exactly a trivial distinction. He also appears to be a bit confused about the purpose of political campaigning. He is dismissive, if not disdainful, of those who maintain discourse in “their own bubble of like-minded people”. He neglects to explain how it can be both “their own bubble” and a bubble they share with “like-minded people”. More importantly, how and where does he imagine discourse relating to a particular issue might proceed other than in just such a bubble. Is it not to be expected that those involved in a campaign should be “like-minded”?

Contrary to what James Dornan seems to suppose, there is nothing at all wrong with ‘preaching to the choir’, as some would put it. How else might a campaign be developed and maintained other than by those involved talking to each other?

As if we didn’t already have a considerable surfeit of perplexity, I am unable to understand why the First Minister’s unquestionably laudable handling of the coronavirus pandemic would forfend criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in other areas. The good must be weighed with the bad. It might sensibly be argued that the good outweighs the bad. But it cannot reasonably be maintained that the good completely eradicates the bad. I recall being counselled by a very close friend who had a hard neck giving anybody relationship advice. He said that when a man sees a beautiful woman – poised, elegant, decorous – he should always bear in mind that she farts in bed. We all have our faults. Nobody is perfect. Although, if James Dornan is to be believed, Nicola Sturgeon comes very close. So long as we completely disregard the reality of what she has done to the independence campaign.

But, unsurprisingly, Mr Dornan agrees with Nicola Sturgeon that there should be no independence campaign at this time. We are all supposed to sit at home thinking about nothing else but Covid-19. We all must be totally and exclusively focused on coronavirus-related matters. To entertain so much as a passing thought on any matter other than the mono-crisis is to show callous disregard for those who have died, scant concern for those who may die and disrespect for the front-line key-worker heroes and angels who care for the suffering.

I exaggerate for effect, of course. James Dornan doesn’t go to such lengths. Although others certainly do. Nonetheless, his attitude is painfully reminiscent of the dour religionists who blighted many a childhood holiday on the Isle of Arran with the diktat proclaimed on behalf of a deity with too much time on her hands (she shouldn’t have made so much) that Sunday must be a day of profound and often inelegantly contrived inactivity. I well recall the swings and roundabouts ironically made equal in their uselessness by chains and padlocks. I still can hear the stern warnings from the Joysucker General’s deputies that to contemplate the kicking of a football on the Sabbath would result in consignment to a hell which to my child’s mind at least, could not possible be worse than the one I had to endure on a weekly basis.

One might wonder whether James Dornan is toying with damnation (inc. hellfire) by taking time out from his fretting over the virus to write a newspaper column. That, as they say, is between him and his conscience.

Similarly, Mr Dornan and those who populate his “bubble of like-minded people” take the view that all of politics and most of life has been brought to a halt by Covid-19. Which rather seems like conceding victory to the virus. This isn’t managing a crisis. It is being dominated by it. Managing a crisis is, almost by definition, keeping as much as possible as normal as possible under the circumstances. Which, incidentally, is what makes the First Minister’s management of the situation so admirable. She may not have been able to keep very much very normal, but she succeeds in persuading people that this is what she is striving for. And that the measures she has taken are normal under the circumstances.

I have to tell James Dornan that politics does not stop for a virus. Politics doesn’t stop for anything. All of life is politics. So long as there is human life there will be politics. Because politics is the management of power relationships – from the interpersonal all the way to the international and sooner than many imagine, the interplanetary. All human interactions are transactions conducted in the currency of power. From chimpanzees grooming in the forests of tropical Africa to ambassadors manoeuvring in the UN building in New York, it’s all politics. From the minute to the monumental, it’s all the power trades and trade-offs which allow society to function. Negotiations continue.

You can’t stop politics. Your involvement only ends with death. Sometimes not even then. You can opt out of certain aspects of the negotiations. But the politics goes on without you. And it may not be possible to catch up.

Here’s James Dorman,

Now, I’m a pretty tribal political animal but I would not be comfortable at all if our party was trying to put independence at the forefront of our thinking just now. Thankfully, outside of a few loud voices in Westminster and some activists online I think most of the party would agree with me.

Concentrate on seeing our people safely through this virus, get politics back to normal, or as normal as anything is going to be after this pandemic, and I have no doubt we will see the support for independence rise substantially.

James Dornan: Why independence cannot be the SNP’s priority for now

I have some questions. I have so many questions!

Those loud voices at Westminster and online may be few, but does that make them wrong? Why are there no such voices in Holyrood? Why only Westminster and online? Isn’t the Scottish Parliament the place where we would hope and expect voices to be raised in defence of Scotland’s cause?

Has the public really suspended all concerns other than the virus? Does Mr Dornan suppose we think and talk about nothing else? Given that it ranged over a multitude of topics which could not even pretend to be coronavirus-related, how strongly would James Dornan have disapproved of the WhatsApp video chat I enjoyed (and I mean enjoyed!) with a well-known independence activist yesterday?

How can independence not be the SNP’s priority now and always? How can independence not be at the forefront of the party’s thinking now and always? Has Mr Dornan ever read the party’s constitution? Has the commitment to restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status been removed?

Do any of of us need James Dornan to tell us that the public health crisis must be the Scottish Government’s priority right now? Would it not be more helpful if he used his column to explain why this necessarily means that the SNP and everybody else must cease and desist from all independence-related activity and even discussion until we’re told it’s OK to carry on?

Is James Dornan genuinely so ignorant of the real, on-the-ground effects of lockdown as to be unaware that there are thousands of people who are neither front-line nor key-workers but who are stuck at home abiding by our First Minister’s strictures and with little else to do but engage with others online? Is he truly oblivious to the opportunity that this affords the Yes campaign? Why is he so determined that we should not seize this opportunity? Why the intense effort by the SNP leadership to close down completely the entire independence campaign?

Does James Dorman seriously imagine that we will just be able to pick up where we left off? (Does anyone think that was a good place anyway?) Is he really pinning all our hopes for independence on a grateful electorate rewarding Nicola Sturgeon for her handling of the crisis – even when she herself has declared that “it’s got nothing to do with the constitution”?

Is James Dorman persuaded that the virus has stopped the forces of British Nationalism to the same extent as he hopes to stop the campaign for independence? Have his years in politics taught him nothing?

On one thing James Dorman and I agree. We are most certainly beset by “opportunists seeking to gain advantage, not for the cause of independence but for themselves”. We have the ‘cunning plan’ parties looking to exploit the very dissatisfaction with the SNP that he and his “bubble of like-minded people” have engendered. But what of those who are trying to silence Yes activists and put the entire independence campaign into a covid-induced coma? Should we not reckon on them having an agenda? Should we not suppose that they too are seeking advantage for themselves or something that is definitely not the campaign for independence?



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It’s the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine
REM

Today (Wednesday 13 May 2020) marks 55 days since I last left the house. Almost eight weeks. 1,320 hours. 79,200 minutes. 4,752,000 seconds.

And I feel fine.

I have adjusted to the lockdown with no apparent effort and no perceptible ill-effects. After 4,752,000 seconds it has become my ‘new normal’. I have adjusted. Our household has adjusted. My wife and I have found it perhaps surprisingly easy to do so. There are a number of reasons for this. Neither of us has any enthusiasm for the kind of soap-opera drama that so many people seem to suppose constitutes normality. We quite enjoy each other’s company. After 35 years together we have learned how to be together. We like enough of the same things and agree on enough issues to a sufficient degree that conflict simply doesn’t arise. Forced by the circumstances of raising a family while both working two jobs, we have fallen into the habit of sharing the workload. There is little discussion of who does what. We just get stuff done.

We both like routine. Novelty and excitement are for youngsters and people with non-standard brain chemistry. We pretty much do the same things at the same time every day. It’s what we are comfortable with.

We are free enough to do things we like doing. Disciplined enough to do things we must do. Intelligent enough to recognise the things we can’t do. Mature enough to accept the things we cannot change.

Judy is working from home. Her job is such that all she really needs – apart from her knowledge, skills and personal qualities – is a phone, a computer and a broadband connection. All of which we have. She has long been accustomed to conference calls and online meetings. Making this work for events which were previously deemed to require physical presence has at times been a challenge. But she enjoys a challenge.

I am retired. But I have never completely lost the habits of a working life. I have found it helpful to preserve the ‘hooks’ of a normal working day – a start and finish time and various breaks. These are not rigidly adhered to. But they provide a framework for my days. A framework which I can make fit with my wife’s inevitably less flexible routine.

Creating a suitable working environment necessitated some expenditure on new office equipment. Which suited me fine as I’m a dab hand at the online shopping; and package tracking is the only form of sport in which I engage. I’m a bit of a tech-geek. Selecting, buying and setting up new computer equipment is my idea of fun. And I’ve nothing else to spend my pension on these days.

I just don’t go out. I reckon that if you’re going to do lockdown then you should do lockdown. If the advice is to stay at home, then stay at home. Not that I needed any advice. I understand enough about how viruses behave in populations to know that the only way to be sure of not finding yourself on a chain of infection that only exists because someone has failed to break it, is to be the break that others have failed to make. The only certain way of stopping a virus from spreading through an entire population is to ensure that no two people in that community ever come into whatever proximity the virus requires in order to pass from infected individuals to new host individuals. That this may be impractical should not deter us from getting as close to total social distancing as human ingenuity will allow.

So, I just don’t go out. My wife goes out to provide us with the necessities of life. But she keeps these trip to a minimum; observes strict social distancing practice while away from the house, and ‘decontaminates’ when she returns. All of which is our new normal. We’re fine with it.

I’m not being smug. I know our household may be far from typical. I know lockdown affects people in different ways; because people are not all alike and neither are their circumstances. I recount all of this merely to make the point that life in lockdown can be perfectly liveable. People can adjust. Circumstances can be modified. It can all be made fine. Mostly.

People will always require other people – for purely practical reasons, if nothing else. What lockdown is teaching us – if we are willing to learn – is that we maybe don’t need others as much or as often as we thought. We’re discovering that we can do without – or do it ourselves. Hair-cutting has been an issue for a great many people. It may be trivial compared to, for example, having a tumour removed but it nicely illustrates the problems thrown up by the lockdown. I have cut my own hair for many years. I have professional-quality electric hair-clippers which I run across my head every two weeks or so. Obviously, I’m not fussed about style. My hair-style is whatever is left after the clippers are put away. Lockdown hasn’t affected my hair-care regime in the slightest. I’m fine.

Judy is another matter. She is accustomed to having her hair cut and styled professionally. Understandably, she is not looking forward with any great enthusiasm to the day the man from Amazon delivers the professional-quality hairdressing tools I will be using on her head. I’m not exactly thrilled about it myself. My first job when I left school was in a barber shop. I have cut hair. Men’s hair. More than half a century ago. I’m a bit rusty. But needs must. If you find yourself in a similar position then I recommend you just keep telling yourself that it has to be easier than DIY dentistry. I can testify to the fact that home dentistry is not remotely fine.

You may also want to take my word that you better get used to home hairdressing, if not home dentistry. Because it really is the end of the world as we have known it. There is no ‘when this is over’. There is no ‘back to normal’. It is best to suppose that everything you once considered normal now isn’t. The phrase ‘new normal’ shouldn’t be taken to imply some minor tweaks here and there. It implies major changes to every aspect of everyone’s life. Or so we should assume. If we are to avoid a massive culture-shock, we had better start thinking very differently about how we are going to live in the future.

Responsible politicians have made a start on gently introducing the idea that none of us is getting our old life back. A few have recognised the need to assiduously avoid making bold promises about what it’ll be like ‘when this is over’. Our own First Minister was an early adopter of cautionary language about what the future holds. On 23 April, the First Minister unveiled the Scottish Government’s framework for decision making which contains an entire section called ‘Adjusting to a New Normal of Living with the Virus’. The words that struck me most powerfully are ‘living with the virus’. Not beating it. Not taming it. Not curing it. Living with it!

For how long?

Forever!

This may be unsaid. The politicians may not be spelling it out. But it stands to reason that if, as Nicola Sturgeon said “the virus will not have gone away” even if and when we figure out how to control it then we have to think in terms of “coexisting with the virus”, as Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte put it. There will always be viruses. This coexistence is not a temporary arrangement.

Note that both these politicians spoke of “the virus”, obviously referring to Covid-19. But Covid-19 is only the latest such pathogen to threaten the world. There have been others before – Spanish Flu and HIV for example. There will be others in the future. Even if and when we learn to “control” Covid-19 – and bear in mind that “control” of the virus itself means reorganising our lives – we will have to consider the general and constant and unending threat of viruses and other pathogens. We cannot now become unaware of the threat that they pose.

The world ‘forgot’ Spanish Flu. But that was a world without the web. We now possess something akin to a ‘species consciousness’. However much some may want to, awareness of pandemic disease cannot now be eliminated. And, being aware, we are compelled to act. It is not viruses that have changed – any more than they have always changed as they mutate. Nor is it human physical vulnerability that has changed. Although changes to the environment wrought by humans cannot be other than a major factor in pandemics. What has changed is our awareness. Our consciousness Our knowingness. We cannot unknow what we have learned. We cannot lose a consciousness that exists independently of us. We cannot become unaware when awareness is common to all of humanity.

The monster has come out from under the bed and is looming over us with its teeth bared. The monster is still there when you turn on the light.

Blame the scientists! If they hadn’t found ways of detecting viruses and gained an understanding of how they affect the human body and how they spread and how they can be stopped from spreading and how they can be prevented from killing us, we could be comfortably unaware. We could be blissfully ignorant. We could all be dead. And I do mean all of us. All bliss and comfort could come to a ghastly end with an extinction level pandemic. The remarkable thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is not how the world reacted but that it reacted at all. For the first time ever we’ve had something that is at least an approximation of a global response to a global threat. Setting aside the politics of the thing for a moment (longer if we can get away with it) what happened is that scientists in China identified the virus very early. They then notified the world. The world decided the best way to counter the threat. The world implemented all the necessary measures and maintained them until the threat was reduced to a manageable level. Run closing credits!

That’s the fictional version. It wasn’t quite like that. But what matters is that we now know that it could be like that. We know there’s things we can do. So now we’re obliged to do them. And, being obliged to do them, we will feel compelled to do them better. We’ll do better next time. It’ll be fine. Maybe.

We’ve been lucky. It may not feel like it. And to whatever extent this is ever over we will doubtless then put all the success down to our own ingenuity and effort while blaming someone else for the failures. That process has started already. Sometimes I think the viruses deserve to win. But not this time, I think. Because we’ve been lucky. Even if it turns out that there is no Covid-19 vaccine. Even if it transpires that there is no acquired immunity. Even if the hidden effects of the virus now being discovered prove as big a killer as the effects which were more immediately obvious, still we have been lucky.

We are fortunate that this was not an extinction level pandemic. We can thank who- or whatever it is we’re in the habit of thanking for things that we have nobody to thank for that this was not an extinction level pandemic. We can light a candle or slit the throat of a baby cow or whatever it is we generally do to propitiate the supernatural entities which could have visited an extinction level pandemic on us if such had been their whim but instead blessed us with Covid-19. We’ve been very, very lucky.

Had “the virus” satisfied only a few more criteria and/or better satisfied the criteria that it did then we would have been in a condition for which epidemiologist have coined the term ‘fucked’. Our state of readiness was such that we’d have been past the point of no return on the road to extinction before the first emergency cabinet meeting was convened.

Here is what you need to know! That virus already exists. Or it could come into existence at any moment. Viruses, like everything that is (sort of) alive is the product of random mutation. Random! It takes no more effort for a virus to be deadly than it does for it to be relatively harmless. It’s just a matter of luck. Our luck. Given that we must work on the assumption that all viruses are harmful to humans and none are truly harmless, the odds are tipped very slightly in favour of the big killer emerging. Which means the odds are against us. Viruses are everywhere and constantly mutating in the same random way as didn’t quite make Covid-19 THE ONE. It’s like a planet-sized game of Russian Roulette in which viruses are the chambers in a gun pointed at humanity’s head and one of those viruses (at least one) is the live round which will blow us all away. In this analogy, the trigger is pulled when THE ONE enters the human population.

You’re probably wondering what THE ONE will be like. You may be curious to know what it is that makes it THE ONE. Don’t bother! It could be any of numerous permutations of any of numerous characteristics. It would be possible to describe THE ONE. But THE ONE that turns out to be THE ONE might be nothing like THE ONE that has been described. It doesn’t matter. There is no way to prevent any of these permutations arising and no way to counter its effects once it finds a host. The only hope is to either stop THE ONE from getting into the human population or to prevent it becoming a pandemic when it does.

All viruses have the potential to be THE ONE. THE ONE could be any virus. Which means that, given our new awareness, we have to assume every virus is THE ONE, and act accordingly. Unless we are prepared to be exterminated, we are going to have to prepare to meet every new viral infection as if it heralds an extinction level pandemic.

The good news (about bloody time!) is that it can be done. Those generous, beneficent fates have given us a practice run. They’ve given as a warning. We know what must be done. We know how to defeat a pandemic. We know that this will require the total transformation of the world as we have known it on a timescale that would make the most hyper-Panglossian of state planners weep tears of blood in utter despair. But we know. And knowing, we have no excuse for not doing.

It may be the end of the world as we know it. But we can all still be fine. It’s just that it’ll be a new fine.

This article was originally written for iScot Magazine
but I missed the deadline.



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Break the chain

Break the chain of infection!

Pathogens such as viruses spread along chains of infection – from infected person to new host. The only certain way to stop the spread of a virus such as Covid-19 is to break as many of those chains as possible. To starve the virus of new hosts.

The only way to break the chains of infection and starve the virus of new hosts is to isolate potential new hosts from potentially infected person. When there is no way to easily and reliably tell whether a person is infected or infectious then this means isolating every individual from every other individual. If no two individuals in a population come into contact or proximity, the virus cannot spread. There are no chains of infection along which it can travel.

The more breaks in the chain there are, the less chance there is of anyone becoming infected. None of us has any way of knowing if we are on a chain that has been broken at some prior point.

The only way to be certain that the chain is broken is to be the break.

Will you be a link in a chain of infection? Or will you be a break?



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The next trick

Joanna Cherry gets it! She understands the situation and the circumstances and the dynamics. This much is evident from her column in The National today. She sees the opportunities and the potential pitfalls. And she is not shy about presenting a perspective which contrasts sharply with that set out by Nicola Sturgeon. All of which is very welcome. We needed this.

The contradiction of Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order to the independence movement is explicit enough to be effective but framed in such a way as to avoid constituting a direct challenge to the party leader. Almost as if it had been composed by a lawyer. But let us not mistake this for anything other than a challenge – not for the leadership but to the leadership of the SNP. A challenge to the ethos of small ‘c’ conservatism and hyper-caution with which the leadership has lately become imbued. A challenge to the mindset which allowed the independence campaign to become moribund long before the current public health crisis was even on the horizon.

It was always the case that the SNP, both in Edinburgh and in London, was going to have to work within the British political system even as the party sought to break Scotland free from it. That is the nature of devolution. It is the nature of the Union. It’s the realpolitik. This meant that there was always the danger of the party becoming mired in that system. It’s how the British state operates. Those challenges to established power which cannot be crushed are absorbed. Or they are absorbed only to be crushed.

This is not to imply that the SNP group at Westminster has ‘gone native’. Not completely, anyway. Nor does it imply that the party leadership, rightly centred at Holyrood, has become ‘tame’. Not completely, anyway. It is only to say that there is a necessary compromise to be made between being the radical spanner in the works of the British political system and being enough of a cog in the machine to function as an administration in Scotland and Scotland’s (token) representation in the British parliament. The barely veiled sub-text of Joanna Cherry’s article is that the current leadership has got that balance wrong.

Somebody had to say it. Somebody other than a cantankerous, irascible, contrary and most of all inconsequential old blogger, that is. Somebody with presence had to speak out. Somebody with political heft and clout. Somebody who would be listened to even by those disinclined to hear any criticism of Nicola Sturgeon or the SNP. With all due respect to Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, this was always going to be Joanna Cherry MP. Angus’s interventions have been very welcome and have served the important purpose of keeping alive the spirit of the independence movement which Nicola Sturgeon was attempting to subdue. But I’m sure he understands full well that Joanna Cherry’s voice is the one which will reach those who need to hear.

Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to ignore either Joanna Cherry’s warning about the fate of Winston Churchill or her call for the lifting of that cease and desist order. This will have to be addressed. Concerns about her commitment to the Section 30 process were not addressed – were pointedly and even contemptuously ignored – because those concerns were not voiced by anyone of Joanna Cherry’s stature. Ms Cherry cannot be ignored. Not even the First Minister may treat her with disdain. Belatedly, the SNP leadership will be obliged to rethink its strategy of disregarding constructive criticism and closing down ‘inconvenient’ debate.

Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself as a political leader. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak hit us, she was recognised as an extraordinarily able party leader and a highly competent First Minister. She is popular and respected. Her handling of the public health crisis has greatly enhanced a reputation such as few politicians can aspire to. But, as Joanna Cherry points out, this is not enough. As Winston Churchill discovered, people always want to know what your next trick will be no matter how amazing the last one was. They always demand more no matter how much they have been given. They always ask, “What have you done for us lately?”, no matter how much you’ve done for them recently.

The electorate may be occasionally grateful, but is is always demanding. And the Scottish electorate is arguably more demanding than most.

Joanna Cherry’s intervention provides Nicola Sturgeon with an opportunity to signal a shift in strategy. It need not be dramatic. Not immediately. It need not come from Nicola Sturgeon herself in a manner which might be portrayed as a climb-down. The signal could come from anyone close to the leadership. A few names spring to mind, but I suspect none of them would be grateful is I mentioned their names in this context. Just ask yourself who among Nicola Sturgeon’s closest allies speaks with an authority to match that which Joanna Cherry brings to this issue.



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A wasted dawn?

Stuart Cosgrove is right to have no faith that the Tories will do anything other than seek to restore the normal that was the problem in the first place. His mistake is to reserve his distrust for the Tories when it is the entire social, political and economic system that is defective.

Ponder this! The Tories couldn’t build a new normal even if they were minded to do so. Nor could British Labour. There may be some reason to suppose that the SNP might do somewhat better in this regard had they the normal powers of a national government. At the very least, it is possible to believe that the SNP would be inclined to strive for a transformation of society rather than a restoration of the thing we had instead of society prior to the pandemic. But there is no reason to imagine that even with the best of intentions the SNP could succeed in creating a liveable, viable society in Scotland.

Stuart Cosgrove is correct when he concludes that the drive for genuine, meaningful change must come from us – we the people! But first we must correctly identify the problem. And it’s not the Tories. It runs much deeper than that.

Nor should we stop at particulars such as racism or economic marginalisation when looking for the root of the problem we hope to address. It may be helpful, I would venture, to think of our post-pandemic project not as rebuilding or reforming or reshaping society but as re-balancing. Addressing, not only the various imbalances which blight society as we have become accustomed to experiencing it, but the underlying tendency to those imbalances. Just as there is no point in returning to a normal which was the problem so it makes no sense to create something imbued with the same dynamics which produced the imbalances of old.

The weary old saw about being the change you want to see gains fresh vitality in this context. What a waste of a new dawn if it heralds only a day like those that preceded it. Creating a new society is not just a matter of legislative and structural and institutional reforms. It starts with our mindset. If we want to live differently, we must first think differently.



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Compare and contrast

Boris is back! There is no telling how thrilled I am. But being ever inclined to look for the silver lining – debased and tarnished as it may be – I welcome the fact that we now get to make direct comparisons between what the heads of the two governments are saying. And how they are saying it. We have grown accustomed to being informed about the situation in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s response straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. Now we get the output from the other end directly instead of having the stable-boys shovelling it up and delivering it to us in buckets. There is literally no telling how thrilled I am.

There’s not much more to be said about the way our First Minister has comported herself over the past few weeks. Her presentation style has been all but flawless. Clear, consistent, calm, confident and always briefed to the point where she speaks with great authority. Sombre as appropriate. Amusing when the opportunity arises. Quick-witted at all times. Restrained when she deems restraint to be called for. Ready to take questions from hostile media and just as prepared to answer them – often in ways they don’t expect; occasionally in ways they don’t like. Dignified but accessible. Straight-talking but courteous. Forthright but discreet. She’s bloody good!

If Nicola Sturgeon takes to the podium on the world stage like a seasoned statesman to speak on matters of great import, Boris Johnson takes the microphone at a wedding like one of the groom’s drinking buddies who has been ordered on pain of castration to put a gloss on a marriage everybody knows will be over before the DJ plays the The Cryin’ Shames – or whatever it is they close with now that it’s not 1968. If Nicola Sturgeon is the witness that the jury believes, Boris Johnson is the witness the jury think really did the crime and should be doing the time even if he didn’t do the crime because he’s such an shifty character.

Nicola’s The West Wing without the accent. Boris is Yes Minister without the laughs.

You get the picture.

Nicola Sturgeon is intent on giving people the facts and stating the situation as honestly as possible even if the news is not good. Or at least she gives that impression. And if that is not all that matters then it is certainly a very large part of it. Our FM inspires confidence. She commands respect. she earns trust. All of which is crucial because there is no strategy for coping with Covid-19 that is not critically dependent on the willing cooperation of the general public. People do what Nicola Sturgeon tells them to do. They have complied with the lockdown restrictions as comprehensively as they have largely because she has convinced them of the necessity and she is the one they look to for information and advice. They look to her as a leader.

Boris Johnson hasn’t a clue. Or at least he gives that impression. If he says hello your first instinct is have that fact-checked. When Donald Trump was suggesting coronavirus infection could be cured by giving internal organs an overnight soak in Domestos, Boris Johnson was the one wishing he’d thought of that first. He’s not interested in the science. He’s only interested in the optics. He’s not interested in providing information. He’s only interested in winning favour. For Nicola Sturgeon this is first and foremost a public health crisis that she is responsible for dealing with. For Boris Johnson it’s a bit of a bother that somebody really needs to get sorted out.

When Nicola Sturgeon says it might be a good idea to cover your face in situations where social distancing is impractical or impossible, people listen and think it’s a sensible precaution that they may well heed her advice on. Unless they’re listening from inside the British media bubble. In which case they’re wondering whether to go with indignant outrage (Daily Express), pompous condemnation (Record), sarcastic mockery (Sun), look at those shoes! (Mail), subtle misrepresentation (Scotsman), crude misrepresentation (Herald), three-legged dog delivers newspapers in Fife village (BBC Scotland).

When Boris Johnson says we’ve “passed the peak” of the crisis people listen and think this is what he’s saying having been talked out of announcing the end of lockdown and urging everybody to go out in the streets and parks of England’s blessed isle and ‘Hug for Britain’! Unless they’re listening in those parts of this blessed isle where they think themselves sufficiently blessed that they can afford to elevate Boris Johnson to the status of national hero and praise him as the man who saved England from that “orrible foreign bug wot the immigrants brought in”.

You won’t hear Nicola Sturgeon using terms such as “passed the peak”. Not that she’s incapable of saying the wrong thing. While lauding her handling of the current public health crisis I don’t forget those aspects of her performance as First Minister which are, shall we say, less splendid. Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t utter those words only partly because she’s a smart politician who knows better than to give such hostages to fortune – even if she fails to act accordingly all the time. Mainly, I would suggest, she is more cautious about optimistic statements because she genuinely understands the nature of the threat – in a way that Boris Johnson can’t. Or is not disposed to. Or is not equipped to.

There are signs that Boris Johnson is about to give in to pressure and announce some kind of exit strategy and recovery plan. Nicola Sturgeon is, I suspect, very much aware that the virus is not going away and while plans and promises about life after the virus may be what people want to hear but that what responsible governments should be working on is planning for life with the virus.

The likelihood is that the UK Government will opt for a phased end to lockdown with a rapid and escalating response to any signs of a fresh outbreak. They will prioritise “getting back to normal”. That is to say, restoring the status quo ante. The Scottish Government may well part company completely with London on this. I feel certain Nicola Sturgeon is determined to take a more cautious approach, trying to get ahead of the virus and cut it off before considering any easing of restrictions. Or, as The Scotsman would put it, trying to pick a fight with Westminster.

I know which of the two I’ll be listening to. I’m not at all confident that Boris Johnson knows the difference between a peak and a plateau.



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Acting the fool

Anybody who is trying to use the immediate challenges we face in tackling this virus, or to twist what I say in relation to some of these issues to make any kind of pre-existing, political or constitutional point, will not find me willing to play ball. Rigorous scrutiny of the decisions @scotgov is taking is both appropriate and essential – but simply trying to shoehorn these issues into our pre-existing political debates and positions doesn’t help tackle the virus.

Nicola Sturgeon

Is Nicola Sturgeon really so naive as to suppose that a public health crisis can be completely divorced from politics? Or that political and constitutional points can be mutually irrelevant? I rather doubt it. I suspect she is well aware that there is no aspect of life which is not intimately and irrevocable bound up with politics. And that there is no part of politics that does not impinge on some aspect of life. It is unimaginable that she could fail to recognise that, just as politics permeates our lives, so the constitution overarches and enfolds all of our politics.

Nicola Sturgeon is an astute and highly experienced politician. As a political operator, she is undoubtedly outshone by her predecessor. But that leaves her plenty of scope for putting into practice whatever tricks she may have picked up. As the former, she will know full well that absolutely everything in life is political. As I wrote in an article for iScot Magazine,

It’s not that politics intrudes on all of life. All of life is politics. We are all ‘doing politics’ all the time. Human society is a matrix of power relationships. All human interactions, at every level from the interpersonal through the familial and the communal to the international, are transactions conducted in the currency of power and mediated by a process which is the same throughout, even if we are accustomed to calling it ‘politics’ only when we get to the more collective levels of social organisation.

Politics is personal

Nicola Sturgeon knows this. Of that we can be fully confident. She could not have achieved what she has were she in any confusion about the true nature of politics. As a political operator, however, she may be motivated to pretend that she is as naive as described above. The expediencies of various situations may prompt her to speak and act as if she actually supposes politicians can and should be can be apolitical in the midst of a public health crisis. Sometimes, the pretence of credulousness can be disturbingly convincing. As in when she thought to put the constitutional issue on hold for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. She really seemed to believe that this was both possible and wise. Let’s hope it was all an act.

The pretending – or role-playing – is but a device for attacking opponents. By acting as if the constitution has nothing to do with politics and politics nothing to do with a public health crisis she can condemn and hopefully silence those who are foolish enough to provide her with ammunition. Yes, Carlaw! We’re talking about you!

Because Nicola Sturgeon pretends doesn’t mean that we have to. Democracy works better the more people are educated about how it works and informed about how it is working. We are better citizens for developing our understanding of the ways of politics and awareness of the facts and arguments around political issues. Better citizens make a better society. The public heath crisis must be political because dealing with it necessitates political choices. Managing the response involves political decisions. By which I don’t just mean choices and decisions made by politicians but choices and decisions informed in significant measure by plainly political considerations.

And what is the constitution about if not the question of who makes political decisions; how political decisions are made, and what political considerations are legitimate. The matter of closing the border is only one instance of political decision-making. It may seem trivial to some if they fail to recognise that it stands as metonym for all political decision-making. Debate about where ultimate power lies or should lie in relation to closing the border is a proxy for debate about where ultimate power lies in all matters. It represents and illustrates the dichotomy between those who maintain that the exclusive source of legitimate political authority – such as the authority to close the nation’s borders – derives from a divinely-ordained monarch (or the descendants thereof) and those who adhere to the fundamental democratic principle that the only source of legitimate political authority is the people.

The current crisis is a public policy concern. Managing the response brings into play relationships of power. It is political. It is constitutional. It cannot be otherwise. Nicola Sturgeon knows this. And so should we.



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No exit!

The challenge we face is to find a balance that allows us to suppress and control the virus and and minimise absolutely the damage it can do, while also allowing life to go on, if not completely as normal, then at least in as normal a way as is possible.

Nicola Sturgeon

We’ve got to try to seek a new normal, because how we are living our lives right now has consequences and can’t go on forever,

Nicola Sturgeon

As regular readers will be aware, I have a propensity or predilection for picking on particular words and phrases when politicians speak. If the politician in question is worth listening to at all then they are worth listening to carefully. Remember always that prepared speeches are just that – prepared! They are carefully crafted. They are cautiously constructed. What is said can, therefore, tell you a great deal about what the politician is thinking. Or about what they want you to suppose they are thinking. Which also tells you something. What they don’t say can tell you even more.

When politicians speak extemporaneously, they may let something slip. That’s why they tend to keep repeating the soundbites supplied to them by their media advisers. And why they are well-schooled in the arts of diversion and deflection. Again, what they don’t say; the questions they assiduously avoid answering; the topics they are unwilling to address, can be more informative than the vacuous drivel that comes out of their mouths.

It pays to listen. It pays to scrutinise transcripts. It pays to read what politicians write always actively looking for the subtext. It pays not to take their utterances at face value.

Nicola Sturgeon is a politician worth attending to. Few even among her most strident political opponents would deny this. I shall use the word ‘statesmanlike’ because it conveys what I intend and because the more ‘right-on’ alternatives are just ugly. She is worth listening to not least because sometimes she says the ‘wrong thing’. By which I mean she says something that is considerably more forthright than is usual for politicians. For me, this indicates honesty. Or alt least a respect for truth over spin. The person who never said anything controversial never said very much at all.

It is moderately perplexing that Nicola Sturgeon can be so apparently incautious with what she says when she is so famously (or notoriously?) cautious when it comes to political action. As I remarked in a recent article,

It’s as if the Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister and the Nicola Sturgeon who is the de facto figurehead of the independence campaign are two very different people. Or maybe just one person better able to cope with one role than the other.

Us or them!

Nonetheless, regardless and whatever, the First Minister has conducted herself superbly throughout the current public health crisis. To a degree which has surprised even some of us who have long appreciated the openness, grace and skill with which she has discharged the responsibilities of her office. The people of Scotland chose well.

It says a great deal about Nicola Sturgeon’s political stature that her daily briefings are heard furth of Scotland and far beyond the UK’s borders. Her voice carries. She is respected and trusted pretty much everywhere. And we may be confident that she knows what she’s talking about. I know of no occasion when she has not been fully on top of her brief. So, it pays to listen to her.

The two quotes at the top of the page are from recent briefings in which the First Minister has attempted to deal with the matter of a strategy to ease lockdown restrictions and exit the Covid-19 crisis. Her message was clear and consistent with previous statements. Her straight talking manner was, as always, greatly and widely appreciated. I listened carefully. These two remarks caught my attention. They stood out not because of the words spoken but on account of the possible implications. Is there a subtext here? What is that subtext saying? Are these superficially phatic remarks preparing the ground for something more substantial?

To my ear, these words could be interpreted as hinting at us having to learn to live with the virus. They sound to me as if Nicola Sturgeon is edging towards the idea that there may be no exit from the Covid-19 crisis. Like she is trying to introduce the notion in small increments. The strong impression is that she is subtly not ruling out the possibility of the current restrictions, or some version of them, continuing indefinitely.

As always, context matters. The context in which I heard these words as I did includes the still live possibility that having been infected does not confer immunity. It just may be that there is a threat of re-infection – in at least some cases. At present, we just don’t know. But there is enough ‘evidence’ to make this an issue even if none of that ‘evidence’ could be described as scientific. The implications of secondary infection – which I am content to leave to your imagination – are so serious that even a remote possibility has to be taken into consideration.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) got itself into a bit of a Twitter tangle (Twangle?) at the weekend with a subsequently deleted post addressing the question of ‘immunity passports’ for people who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Those well acquainted with the ways of social media will be not the slightest bit surprised to learn that the furore grew around a post which was technically accurate, but insufficiently guarded against the Twitterati’s tendency to find ‘End of Days’ prophecies in the most innocent of statements. The WHO Tweet left them all the scope they needed.

There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.

Which is correct. There is no evidence because there has not been time for that evidence to be found or developed. There is a default assumption, born of experience, that those who have been infected will have acquired at least some immunity. But there is, as yet, no scientific evidence that this is the case. What the WHO now say it that they “expect that most people who are infected with #COVID19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection.” Which has slightly less potential to induce paranoia and provoke panic.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Politicians do not like to be the bearer of ill tidings. A few – Nicola Sturgeon being one – have the ability to deliver bad news in a way that actually enhances their reputation ind increases their popularity. They are the exception. For the most part, politicians hate the job of telling the electorate anything other than what they suppose the voters want to hear. They deliver bad news, they get blamed for the bad thing that happens. As we’ve seen with the UK’s political elite throughout the current crisis and before, this preference for emphasising the positive and shunning the negative leads to a great deal of over-promising and under-delivering.

Nicola Sturgeon ‘gets away with it’ largely due to the skills and personal qualities referred to earlier. But she also makes sure to prepare her audience in advance. Generally speaking, bad news isn’t quite so bad if you’re expecting it. My suspicion is that with the remarks quoted above Nicola Sturgeon was taking just such a precaution.

This does not mean that we should anticipate the First Minister taking to the podium for her daily media briefing session to declare that lockdown is now a permanent feature of our lives. Not imminently, anyway. But if and when she does, she can refer to her previous statements on the matter to demonstrate that at least she is not being caught unawares.

In similar manner, having written this, I’ll be able to say “Ah telt ye!”.



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Crisis and opportunity

Much is being made of the critical aspects of the recently published essay authored by Professor Allyson Pollock, co-director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science and Dr Louisa Harding-Edgar, a Glasgow GP and Academic fellow in general practice at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health & Wellbeing, The media have, as is their wont, latched onto those aspects of the report which are most damning of the Scottish and UK governments’ handling of the coronavirus crisis. The National headline is fairly typical – Scottish Government should have acted quicker on coronavirus, think tank says.

And that’s fair enough. I wouldn’t seriously dispute any of the criticisms. It is perfectly fair to say that the ban on mass gatherings introduced by Nicola Sturgeon on 12 March was “too little too late” while acknowledging that it was the right thing to do. Even the scathing condemnation of the Scottish Government’s “incomprehensible” willingness to toe the UK Government’s line seems well warranted.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the British Covid crisis is the Scottish Government has allowed its strategy and the operations to be directed by Westminster, which has taken a London-centric approach to the epidemic and with respect to the lockdown.

I would urge the we accept all of the criticism contained in the report without descending into the ‘blame game’. The reproachful tone of the essay is sufficiently justified. Arguments about how blame should be apportioned between administrations and individual politicians would be arid and endless and would tend to obscure the main thrust of the report which is that it is vital to focus on what we can learn from this situation. We are all novices in this situation.

We all have much to learn. Past mistakes and misjudgements cannot be undone. But they hold lessons for us that we would be extremely foolish to ignore. Much of what Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar say about the Scottish and UK government’s could be said of every government in the world. Their essay can be a political stick to beat one or the other or both parties to a partisan dispute. Or it can be a teaching tool. Our very survival may depend on whether we take umbrage at the criticism or take heed of the advice.

Biological and other warfare

Experience leads me to presume that Unionists will be incensed by the idea that the Scottish Government should have acted more independently of the UK Government. The knee-jerk reaction from British politicians will be to treat this aspect of the report as if it were a propaganda tool for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. It is unlikely that they will see beyond this pitifully shallow appreciation of the document and recognise that what the report says about the Scottish Government being more assertive and less compliant in its dealings with the UK Government is only part of a more localised and structured approach to the threat of viral pandemics. It is about decisions being taken and actions implemented at the most appropriate level. It may not be possible to divorce this entirely from the wider constitutional issue, but we can surely prioritise.

That threat has always been there. Covid-19 is a wake-up call. We have lived with the threat largely through ignorance. We can no longer plead ignorance. The measures taken by governments have been little short of draconian. Certainly, the ‘lockdown’ restrictions and compromised civil and human rights would have been totally unacceptable.in what will only with great difficulty cease to think of as ‘normal’ circumstances. And yet these are the very measure which we should have been prepared to implement both more immediately and more severely. Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar are fully cognisant of the fact that measures to effectively combat a viral pandemic inevitably have implications for civil and human rights.

Scotland was working to put human rights at the heart of its policies and in advancing the cause of social, economic, and cultural rights. COVID has not only set this work back, it has set back human rights. Children are being denied their human right to an education. Meanwhile, the Disability Law Service condemned the COVID legislation as regressive and punitive for older people and people with disabilities, reducing care to essential services necessary to comply with basic human rights. This legislation is resulting in untold damage for mental health and physical wellbeing, for older people and those with learning disabilities.

There is undoubtedly a danger that, even with the very best of intentions, compromises with the rights of individuals or groups may become excessive. There is an even greater danger that such measure become entrenched. That what is tolerated imposition in a crisis becomes established as a necessary precaution against future crises. In their essay Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar warn of “collateral damage from COVID” as both institutions and individuals strive to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Hospital wards lie half-empty while people are dying at home because they are reluctant to put pressure on health services which they are constantly being told are under strain. Chronic conditions are going untreated and serious symptoms are not being reported. The ‘downstream’ impact on Covid-19 may by some measures be worse than the actual disease.

Viruses and other pathogens

The fundamental lessons to be taken from the report is that we were unprepared for the current public health crisis and that we must never be so unready again. We have to plan for a repeat of the Covid-19 pandemic in one form or another. The pathogen – almost certainly a virus – that will exterminate most of the human race may already exist. Even if it doesn’t, we have to act as if it does. We have to plan for its arrival. That could be in ten years or ten thousand years or tomorrow. We have no way of knowing. Even if the next pandemic turns out to be less than the extinction level event that it might be, we must prepared for it as if it is.

Viruses – and pathogens in general – neither know nor care whether they are the one that will have the distinction of being the one that brings down human civilisation. The precautions against non-lethal viruses are the same as the precautions against the really lethal ones. But the greater threat to human civilisation might be the precautions we take against viral pandemics. Living is more than being alive. Human beings are social creatures. Isolation is against our nature. But isolation is the key to defeating viral infections.

Survival and other instincts

Our future will be dominated by the struggle to resolve the conflict between our social instinct and our instinct to survive. We will get it wrong. We will probably get it wrong more than we get it right. Hopefully, we won’t repeat the mistakes we’ve already made. But never doubt the human capacity for finding novel ways to fuck things up. The best we can hope for; and what we must aim for, is that none of these mistakes is the ‘Final Fuck-up’. The one that would go down in history but for the fact that there’s nobody left to write that history.

If isolation is the key to avoiding a viral pandemic that might wipe us out then preparation is essential in order that we can turn that key when we need to and only when we needs to. Preparation is obviously also essential to ensure that when we do turn the key it instantly activates the mechanisms and processes by which the threat can be averted. It is only by effective planning for the worst that we can restore and preserve something of our social existence; as well as the infrastructure which supports our civilised existence. We can’t restore the ignorance that allowed us to lead the lives that we came to regard as normal. We cannot ‘unknow’ what we now know. But neither can we live in constant dread and a high state of readiness. Only the assurance that effective plans are in place to deal with the viral threat can we hope to dial down the fear and tension.

That life will be different post-Covid is a given. Things must change. What matters is manner of that change and how it is managed. It is a question of who shapes the new normal. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Perhaps the old normal wasn’t normal at all. Could it be that the pandemic is analogous to the defibrillator which delivers a shock so as to restore a normal heartbeat? Might this not be a helpful way to think about how we manage change and shape our future?

Power and using it

Coronavirus Crisis: Underfunding, Restructuring, Privatisation and Fragmentation at the Heart of the Crisis in Holyrood and Westminster is a thought-provoking document. Each of us will have our own thoughts. But will we have a say? Will our thoughts feed into the process of reshaping society for the new reality? It is a truism of democratic politics that if individuals do not use the power they have then that power will be used by others. If we aren’t involved in the exercise than we must be resigned to whatever outcome others choose for us. If we are now thinking of the old normal as abnormal we have to ask how it came to be so. We have to identify the forces which formed this abnormality. And the forces which failed to form our society differently. We must take responsibility. Each and all of us must acknowledge that things were the way they were because we didn’t do enough to ensure that things were what we wanted. We either created that abnormal or we allowed it to be created. Either way, it’s our fault. Let’s not do that again!

Politicians only have the power that we give them. The people are sovereign. That is not a nationalist war-cry. It is as it must be. Politicians are managers. They manage the power of the people on behalf of the people. Or they don’t. In which case, it is the responsibility of the people to strip said politicians of the power given to them by the people. If ultimate powers resides with the people then so does ultimate responsibility. That’s not me channelling Spiderman. That’s just as it must be.

Democracy works best when government is as close to the people as is consistent with its assigned function. Being closer to the source of its power tends to make government more responsive to that power. Public policy tends to better reflect the needs, priorities and aspirations of the people served by a government with which they can relate. That is to say, a government which is close to them. Bringing government closer to the people creates a virtuous cycle.

The converse is also true. The more distant government is the less it tends to respond to the electorate and the less the electorate relate to it. The more distant the government, the less it is regarded as having legitimate authority. The less people regard government’s authority as legitimate the less they cooperate with that government and the less they are inclined to participate in the democratic process. The less people participate in the democratic process the less they are able to ensure they keep government close. The vicious cycle is all too evident.

Doing and being done to

In their essay, Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar make it clear that, to be effective, the structures and mechanisms for dealing with a future viral outbreak must be founded in communities. To work at a national and global level the necessary measures must be implemented at a local level. It all comes down to the behaviour of individuals. The way to stop a virus being treated is to isolate the infected individual(s) and so starve the virus of new hosts. If nobody in the whole world ever came close enough to another person to allow transmission, there would be no possibility of a viral pandemic. There would also be no people. Unless we’re indulging in speculation about procreation without copulation, we must regard such an extreme of isolation as being impossible to achieve and certainly impossible to maintain without massive population decline.

Nonetheless, we should keep this ‘ideal’ of total isolation in mind as we devise the structures and mechanisms that will be triggered at the first sign of a potentially dangerous viral outbreak. The aim must be to initiate a state of isolation as close to the ideal of total isolation as is humanly possible. And to maintain that state for as long as may be necessary. And to ensure the new new normal we’ve created is such that we can easily return to it without the kind of massive restructuring that we will face when we exit the current public health crisis. And to have all of these structures in place and ready to be initiated at a moment’s notice whilst making them as unobtrusive as possible. We should barely be aware of the emergency plan as we go about our daily lives. At the same time, we must be sufficiently knowledgeable about it to be able to play our part as individuals when the switch is thrown.

That’s an impressive set of criteria. Add it to the observations and advice offered by Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar and you have a daunting task. There simply is no way such an emergency response can be left to any central government. If it is imposed from the top down then by the time it filters down to communities and individuals it will be so diminished as to be totally ineffective. The very nature of the thing is such that it is as easy to break as it is difficult to make. The biggest and most perfectly formed bubble can be destroyed by a single pin-prick. The innate social traits of human beings means that there will always be a powerful tendency for chains of transmission to form. That tendency can only be countered if everybody cooperates willingly. The emergency plan envisaged won’t be like a wartime blackout, which can be imposed and policed by central government. There is no way to impose the kind of isolation that is required because there is no way to police it. It is only possible on condition and to the extent that every citizen participates of their own free will.

Isolated but connected

Which brings me to my final point almost as neatly as if this was planned. I would not be the first to remark on how well people have cooperated and participated. It has been extraordinary. Which means that it deserves to be examined. It also means that it can’t be relied upon. We cannot safely assume that because people have broadly gone along with the lockdown etc. they will do so to anything like the same extent the next time. Not only is this ‘broadly going along’ inadequate for the purpose of preventing the spread of a viral infection, it cannot be relied upon. The entire atmosphere could change in an instant. Lockdown could so easily break down.

I wondered about this apparent willingness to go along with restrictions and regulations such as one would imagine might characterise a police state. (Police Scotland surely deserve some credit for this. This was not what they signed up for.) It has to be acknowledged that Nicola Sturgeon has been superb. She has made mistakes. That is understandable. As I said earlier, we are all novices in this situation. Despite these mistakes, I am firmly persuaded that her demeanour has been excellent. She carries the authority that comes with respect – however grudgingly that respect may be given. I haven’t the slightest doubt that her leadership has contributed massively to whatever success the lockdown has achieved. But this is not enough to explain why so many people have so readily accepted the restrictions and the isolation. I think I know what does.

Try to imagine the lockdown without the internet and the cellphone network. I think you’ll find it difficult. I know I did. We may be physically isolated. But we are not socially isolated. That is what makes the current situation tolerable. Perhaps more than just tolerable. Perhaps something close to the new normal? It is also our main hope of devising the mechanisms to combat viral outbreaks.

Ferguson 3V16

Technology has changed. As technology has changed, so have people. We have adapted to the technology. I am old enough to remember the early days of video recorders and the problems they caused for some – mostly older – people who had difficulty getting their heads around the concept of time-shift. It wasn’t so much the technology which baffled them as the paradox of moving things in time. There was just something unnatural about sitting down on Sunday afternoon to watch the Dr Who episode that had been on the night before. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. Older people famously – perhaps apocryphally – couldn’t use the timer on their VCR (video cassette recorder). Not that they didn’t understand the mechanism or couldn’t operate the controls. The difficulty was with the concept of going forward in time to snatch an event and move it forward in time by an unspecified amount so that at some time in the future you could watch an event that is now in the future but will then be in the past. This was not explained in the user manual for the new Ferguson VCR.

You won’t find anybody with that problem today. Most of us have grown up with that technology and its successors. We now have to get our heads around fridges that order milk and instructing the car to use your phone to tell the oven to switch itself on when you’re ten kilometres from home. It is sobering to think that there are people alive today who were born at a time when there were no telephones. Or, at least, that they were a rarity few ever expected to see far less use. Telephones are so ubiquitous now that it is difficult to imagine a time when people had to get accustomed to remote communication. The idea that you could actually have a conversation with someone in another town or even another country was completely alien to most people little more than 100 years ago. Now, we have video chats with friends in France while waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout. Something else that may be superseded by technology.

Forwards or backwards

The final part of the report under discussion is headed The Way Forward. In it, Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar refer to some of the institutional and infrastructural changes they consider necessary mainly relating to social services and healthcare. They seek to create conditions better suited to combating future viral outbreaks. I like their thinking. Anything which makes our essential public services more robust and resilient has to be good. But I felt that one thing was missing. The internet. Our ability to successfully implement and sustain emergency measures in the face of a major public health threat is, I believe, directly linked to and critically dependent on our capacity for remote communication. Extending and improving broadband and cellular networks has to be a core element of planning for a virus-resistant society. Nothing else works if the internet doesn’t.

Fortunately, a large part of the population has already adapted to this technology. Over the last few weeks even more people have familiarising themselves with the likes of Skype and Zoom as they strive to maintain contact with family and friends. Thousands of people have discovered that working from home is not only possible, but has distinct advantages. Perhaps more significantly, employers are learning that their businesses can cope perfectly well without all those people crowding into offices – and potentially infecting one another.

Life post-Covid will be different. But different isn’t necessarily worse. This crisis is also an opportunity. It is our chance to create a new normal. Or, to look at it another way, to rectify the abnormality we’d become so accustomed to we thought it was normal. The lockdown may well have afforded us a glimpse of this new normal. Instead of talking about what will be different when the crisis is over, maybe we could discuss what aspects of this strange new existence we’d like to keep. The lockdown is not all bad. It is certainly something we can learn from. Let’s do that!



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