Praying for Boris

I have been praying for Boris Johnson to be retuned to health. The disease does not follow a narrative or a news cycle. It reflects frail humanity. It brings the reality of it home to see that the virus can strike seriously in anyone, even those who keep fit and strong, as Boris Johnson does.

I comforted myself that some have mild symptoms or none at all: the Prince of Wales blessedly sailed though at a senior age, but those in the flush of youth have succumbed. I keep fit and well and my children and young and strong and we thought that, if the disease were to come to our household then we will be all right, but then something like this happens and the doubts come. I am fit, surely, if you ignore the – ah, but you cannot ignore any gap in the armour, and there may be hidden vulnerabilities.

Boris Johnson keeps himself fit – but he has not escaped the heavy blow. I pray that he will recover swiftly his strength and energy, but I know it is not inevitable. This is a disease which strikes at the highest in the land just as the lowest.

There is genuine goodwill in the messages which have been pouring in for Boris, beyond those issued pro forma. It is not just sympathy, of which there has been much, but fellow-feeling and the knowledge in every writer of a letter that he or she or their mother or child could be next.

The patient himself if far more though than an archetype for the man on the street. He is himself. We need Boris Johnson, even from personally selfish reasons – the political world was convulsed to get us to the point when he could take back control, and sailing past Brexit, he keeps the show on the road. In a Parliamentary system, there should not be such dependence on one man, but that is what we have. Look at the fears for if the worst were to happen and you can see how indispensable he has become. We need Boris.

We will all get through this, or rather most of us will get through, and those who do will still have beloved family members they mourn for. We will come out stronger but not untouched. If all eyes are fixed on one man, it is both because he is indispensable and as a reflection of the perilous state in which each of us and our families exists.

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Meanwhile, in Brussels

Nine months to go before the end of the Transition Period and the end of the customs union, and so many politicians and clerks distracted elsewhere. The news cycle has moved on: even so, the transition year is shortening and a trade treaty must be signed, and can be.

We were told on 9 March that the British negotiators would place draft legal texts on the table for the negotiating round due to take place on 18-20 March in London. That meeting was cancelled, but the European Commission did publish its own draft text. It is not unexpected and full of “non-regression” (the word appears 25 times in the text) and on the environment their “precautionary principle” that has done so much damage to the cause of innovation (“precautionary” appears 30 times). It is as if the European Union has learned nothing in the whole process, and it is fair to assume that it has not.

So where is the British text? I observed before how important it is to get your text on the table, because if we are negotiating from the Brussels text we will get nowhere and we are running straight into a dealless 2021.

The coronavirus outbreak and the reaction to it were shocks that have made many things grind to a halt. However, both Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier have had the disease and got out the other side, and Dominic Cummings is almost there, so they can be getting on with it: they can meet in perfect safety as they can neither contract the disease nor pass it on. If their teams are still vulnerable, there is remote working, but remote working must mean actual working. There are no more excuses.

A gradual assumption has been allowed to grow, and been cultivated by those with an agenda, that all the world’s affairs are suspended and there must be extensions and delays. In reality though, there is no reason at all for delay, and every reason to push on harder: the economy is failing, and Europe is hit the worst as their measures have been more extreme – failing to fix a trade deal will hurt the economies of both sides badly, but Europe is in the most desperation.

No, the world is not “on hold”. For Boris and Barnier, the epidemic is over. Any delay more is mere procrastination.

So, where is that British text?

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Don’t make us resent this

Being kicked out of Tesco is a low point. One person per trolley and then my wife has to walk six paces behind me, which is positively mediaeval. The police have been dispatched in places to stop people going for walks even though we are encouraged to walk for exercise. These are fine days for bullies: an excuse to tell people what to do and make loud tutting noises at those who fail to match their own hypocritical standards.

One thing we have heard is of the authorities in Caernarfonshire and Derbyshire descending to close car parks in case anyone dares to breathe fresh air, just in case we walk too close to someone else on an empty, wind-scoured fell.

Genuinely people are afraid. It is not just stepping aside on the path but women have frozen in horror twenty feet from me and one threw a scarf tight around her face (which is not the normal female reaction to me).

Personal reactions are understandable. The authorities, at every level, are another matter. They must watch their own conduct. There are exceptional rules, but they must be exercised in a manner that accords with reason and principle. The rules are there for a reason, not for themselves. That reason must be the guiding principle behind every action. The new powers are extraordinary, repulsive to normal principle, and temporary. They must be temporary and brief before they become so widely flouted that they are worse then useless.

This was recognised from the beginning in the Chief Medical Officer’s analysis – stringency has its limits and to keep the population behaving in a way that moderates the spread, it must be regulation that is itself moderate. Tweaking the nose too much brings forth blood.

The rules may be released when the NHS will cope, as we have to reach that peak at some time, and best when the weather is clear. We have been squashing that sombrero, but as the days wear on our patience is wearing thin, and we who thrive on our freedom will break.

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What about those who are immune?

Sitting, staring into eternity as everything closes down, forbidden to walk amongst humanity for another’s fear of my being infected or infecting another. Only the immune cannot be infected and cannot infect others. They are still under the same restrictions though.

We do not know how far the infection has spread across the nation. The high fatality rate bears no resemblance to that observed Germany – it is not that the Germans are any sort of master race (let that sort of idea get a hold and you never know where it will end), it just reflects that only the most serious cases have been diagnosed here, and we do not like to make a fuss.

How many then have passed through the disease? We do not know. There is no reason for them to be restricted: they can walk abroad in safety to themselves and others. There is no provision for this freedom in the rules though.

The authorities might issue certificates to those who are immune, to licence them to have the freedom that is our wont. Certificates though are easily forged. Let them come out somehow, for the sake of us all, and provide some custom for the shops and pubs. Someone has to be the forerunner of normality, to rescue the dying economy.

It could be most of us by now – have we thought of that? Until there are tests available, we are walking blind.

There are tests. The priority has been to distribute tests to see which coughs are COVID-19 and which are just coughs, antigen tests to find the active disease amongst those already ill. The test for immunity is an antibody test. That is a lesser priority for the medical profession, but for the survival of the economy and of society they will be vital.

Who will pay for antibody tests? Well, it may be those suffering most from the close-down, and they are running out of money.

Get us the numbers though, and release the individuals who have no reason to be imprisoned, and begin to reopen the joys of society.

The necessity of normality

Members of Parliament are fleeing into isolation. The House has vital business before it. There must be a temptation to take political advantage to bypass Parliamentary norms. More than ever that must not happen.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is taking a robust, parliamentary view, and thank goodness of that. It is in the time that the system comes under most stress and temptation that it must show its strength.

The chamber of the Commons is a close-packed place (when there is a whip out or a chance to be on the telly), and the members are in frequent physical contact with the wider public, so the risk of infection across the whole political class is real. Some members have contracted the Wuhan pneumonia, and many members are vulnerable to its effects by reason of age, infirmity, diabetes or otherwise. From the outside it is hard to see how the meeting of Parliament can continue. If even village-hall keep-fit classes are being cancelled, the expectation would be that the foetid cockpit of Westminster would disperse too.

However, there has just been a budget, and a Finance Bill has to be pushed through or all taxes will expire. At some point the Armed Forces Bill will have to be passed or the army will be disbanded. Parliament must sit to pass these, as well as its normal business.

There is talk too of emergency powers, which is worrying: Tony Blair gave himself extensive emergency powers, which Act is still in place, and those are frightening in themselves without adding more just to be seen to be doing something. (Imagine how the Civil Service will gold-plate any emergency measure they can get Parliament to grant them.)

With so many away and the arithmetic in the House changing, it would be very tempting to push measures through the House which would not normally pass, and to use the excuse to pressurise the Opposition to stop opposing, in the national interest of course. Because that temptation is there, the man in the street is entitled to worry that the crisis will be abused to strip out democracy. For that reason, there must be all the more emphasis on following proper parliamentary norms, all the more involvement of all sides in the house and all parties.

When asked about the emptying House, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg might have purred and called for the government to obtain an enabling act to operate without this lamed parliament, but he did not. He emphasised the use of the pairing system, whereby a member may agree with a sick member on the other side “You cannot vote so I will not”, so maintaining the balance. That is crucial.

He also addressed emergency powers. Instead of salivating over new power to be jealously guarded, he said without question that any emergency powers must have a sunset clause; that they should have a natural expiry. During the War (and we are nowhere near such an emergency) there were extensive emergency powers granted to the government, and the new Attlee ministry elected in 1945 was very reluctant to give them up. Attlee’s Labour Party believed in planning and control of minutiae, and those old wartime powers could be used for that purpose in peacetime. It was not until Churchill was re-elected in 1951 that wartime rationing was ended.

In times of stress, and in times of blind panic, that is when the voice of opposition is most needed. It is needed not just from the opposition benches but from critical members regardless of party. For most of the year one might sail through with the House of Commons as a mere theatre for pre-decided decisions, but when actual thought and consideration are needed, when many alternatives and nuances will make all the difference, in short when there is a need for actual live debate – that is the very reason for having Parliament as we know it.

It was thought when the election result was in and Boris had his stonking majority that it would be full steam ahead on whatever policies Number 10 had in mind. That is no longer the case, during the epidemic. Those members are needed.

In short, democracy must be done, and democracy must be seen to be done.

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