2nd July 2020

Home truths about public protection

Coronavirus has made it clear how much we all depend upon each other – and particularly upon those whose job it is to keep us safe.

By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
Will this moment have reminded us all that saving and improving lives is the only battle worth fighting?

It’s late March. I’ve just had a food order delivered. It’s a fortnight after we booked one of the few remaining slots knowing that there was a good chance we’d be self-isolating, which we are. The sheer joy of seeing fresh food coming through the door was unique. I can’t remember ever being so pleased to see onions and potatoes, and knowing that we didn’t have to worry about food for the next week or so. And those are words I never thought I’d write – or if I did, it would be in the context of a calamitous handling of the Brexit junction. This thing that we’re in right now has made us re-evaluate our values, and it’s being widely called a reset button. A chance to turn our consumer world off and on again to appreciate the things that really matter.

You can see the same switch is being flicked in Government. They’ve had to reprioritise their efforts away from convoluted and divisive ideas, and concentrate on the only reason that Government really exists: public health. As an elected official, whether you’re in the middle of a pandemic or not, unless your focus is keeping as many of the people you serve as healthy and happy as you can, you’ve missed the point. The difference is that we now have a really easy way to demonstrate what success and failure look like, with a deadly daily score and graphs to match. There’s no avoiding a judgement on success and failure when the country is following the progress of a single dotted line from their homes. And, apparently from nowhere, the funding is there too, in sums which, even during an election campaign based on competitive promising, seemed unimaginable.

What will be really interesting will be what happens when this is over. Will we once again get lost in the fog of life’s complexities, where there is no easy way to keep score? Or will this moment have reminded us all that saving and improving lives is the only battle worth fighting, and one that has to be fought all the time, requiring adequate funding and proper accountability? It’s amazing to see how quickly ad-hoc local networks of public-spirited individuals have formed, trying to organise and protect their communities, identifying those most in need and caring for them. These groups rightly receive praise for the work they do, but what is only murmured is that in local government we had these networks and more, established and accountable, paid for through our taxes, preparing for the worst-case-scenario for decades.

Perhaps when this is done we will all breathe a sigh of relief and happily go back to the normality we had before, where we were able to take our safety and survival for granted. But if the human cost we have to pay for this moment doesn’t buy us some insight into how we can look after people better in the future, I suspect we’ll feel like it’s been time wasted.

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