Can we extend the goodwill beyond coronavirus?
“Just a fortnight ago, I made it clear that the Scottish Conservatives would offer our full support to the First Minister and her government as they respond to the coronavirus emergency. I did not do that lightly,” Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw told MSPs earlier this week.
He continued: “Ten years ago, I shadowed Nicola Sturgeon when she led, as health minister, the national response to a previous epidemic, so whatever political differences we might otherwise have – God knows that they are many – I have every confidence in her leading the country’s response to the crisis at this time.
“It is not the time for opposition parties to exploit our situation or to use partisan and pejorative rhetoric against the efforts that are being made.
“To those who are venting against the United Kingdom Government or directly to me about ‘Sturgeon’s government’, let me be clear: for now, the Scottish Government is a government for us all, just as the government in Westminster is a government for us all.
“Will mistakes be made? Possibly. Will our response at times be slower than we would wish? Probably. After this is all over, we can learn from our experience and prepare ourselves for any future event.
“For now, I am clear that the Scottish Conservatives will stand with the First Minister.
“I assure her that the questions that we will ask will be measured and entirely designed to inform and not to hinder the national effort that she is leading, and that we all place our trust in the advice that is received from qualified professionals.”
The First Minister replied: “Like many members, I am a politician to my fingertips, but I have never been less interested in party politics than I am right now. In the battle against the virus and what we will face in the months to come, we are all on the same side, and we should never forget that.
“I accept and understand the importance of robust scrutiny, which is as important now as it is at all times. We are in a common endeavour, and it is important that we recognise that.
“We have never faced a situation like this, so I will do something else that is perhaps not normal for a politician.
“I say candidly that we will make mistakes: we will not always get it right, but we will strive at every turn to do the right thing, for the best reasons and in good faith.
“I genuinely appreciate the sentiments of support that Jackson Carlaw has articulated today.”
Probably not since the Second World War has there been such a spirit of solidarity and the putting aside of party politics for the greater good of the country.
“We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy,” said Boris Johnson.
While talk may be of ‘war’ against COVID-19, peace has broken out as politicians across the spectrum face something that is, quite literally, a matter of life and death with so many unknowns that no one can claim to be party to the right answer. It has proved to be the curveball issue that has emerged to unite the country against the odds.
Even the constitutional bickering has been put to one side temporarily, with Scottish Government constitutional relations secretary, Mike Russell, writing last week to Michael Gove to say that in light of the crisis, the Scottish Government would no longer pursue an independence referendum in 2020 and urging the UK Government also to take a six-month pause on Brexit negotiations.
It seems that some of the trust in politics has been restored. Experts are now very much back in vogue and as politicians have been more open and transparent about the process of decision making, of trying to do their best when they don’t know for certain what the impact of their choices will be, people have been more willing to accept their good intentions, albeit in the face of imperfection.
Even social media has become a nicer place, with the majority looking to support and encourage rather than divide and tear down.
Coronavirus has brought out the best and the worst in people. On the one hand, the need to protect the vulnerable has seen outbreaks of neighbourliness.
Shops and cafés are offering food deliveries; people are making food parcels, offering to fetch messages, post letters or simply chat over the phone with complete strangers who happen to live nearby; over 200 community aid groups are being set up; and even breweries and distilleries are making hand sanitiser to help with the shortage.
Meanwhile, many households have been voluntarily self-isolating to protect others, simply because someone in the family has a cough.
The shocking nature of the situation has forced everyone to re-evaluate what is important, with contact with loved ones at a premium and the effects of all our actions on everyone else suddenly writ very large.
Internationally, too, there have been uplifting images, such as the Italians singing to each other across balconies as they self-isolate, Cuba taking in a British cruise ship that had an outbreak of the virus or the Norwegian prime minister holding a special press conference to explain coronavirus to children.
Suddenly, we have become interested in what is happening in other countries.
On the other hand, the pandemic has seen the outrageous selfishness of people stockpiling, to the extent that supermarket shelves have emptied, so that there is nothing left for others.
In one case, a supermarket has even had to remove its foodbank collection point because people were stealing items from it.
It has also exposed some of the strengths and weaknesses in the UK system.
The BBC, previously under attack, has come into its own as it rearranges programming to keep providing news despite expected staff shortages, as well as additional programming tailored around self-isolation, such as food programmes to focus on cooking with essentials, exercise routines for older people, televised church services and a new iPlayer service for children.
BBC director-general Tony Hall said: “We all know these are challenging times for each and every one of us. As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a special role to play at this time of national need.
“We need to pull together to get through this. That’s why the BBC will be using all of its resources – channels, stations and output – to help keep the nation informed, educated and entertained. We are making a series of changes to our output to achieve that.”
The crisis of a pandemic has underlined the benefits of having a national health service that can pool resources and coordinate a national response, but it has also highlighted the effects of years of underfunding on its ability to deal with increased pressures.
It has put the question of who should be considered a ‘key worker’ in a new light, too.
And the most vulnerable are, as ever, particularly hit, with homeowners being given mortgage loans and renters having been promised measures to protect them from eviction, homeless people have been left on the streets after night shelters have had to close to prevent the spread of infection.
Schools may have to be opened for children on free school meals, simply because without that, those children might not eat.
And while there are many positive examples of inventive use of technology to tackle isolation, with people offering everything from exercise classes to pub quizzes and choirs over social media and meeting apps, those who are most at risk of loneliness, the elderly and disabled, are least likely to have access to the technology that could help them connect with others.
Deep flaws in our economic system, which were already well known, have now also been writ large.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced interventions in the economy “on a scale unimaginable only a few weeks ago”, with £330bn in loans and £20bn in aid, a business rates holiday, and grants for retailers and pubs, saying it was “not a time for ideology and orthodoxy”.
The Scottish Government announced a £1.9bn package of support for businesses, including a £10,000 grant for businesses that are eligible for small business rates relief or in the rural business scheme, 12 months’ business tax relief and £25,000 grants for properties in retail, hospitality and leisure, as in the rest of the UK, as well as a further £350m of support for welfare and wellbeing.
Much has been made of the cinemas, theatres, restaurants, cafés and bars that will be affected by social isolation, but the pandemic has shown, like never before, the frightening nature of the gig economy, where thousands of people on zero-hour contracts, as well as the self-employed, have suddenly found themselves without any source of income at the click of a finger.
While all this is known, the question is whether any of the change is permanent.
Will communities continue to rally round its most vulnerable? Will the trust in politics be restored permanently or is this simply a moratorium on hostilities?
And will the fundamental flaws in the economic model highlighted by the coronavirus, leaving some in a highly precarious situation with no safety net, lead to a rethink of policy?
As everyone stops, takes time out and spends more time at home, COVID-19 offers a chance to re-evaluate the kind of country we are.
Is it the kindness or the selfishness that will prevail? And will the care, trust and community-mindedness extend beyond the next couple of months?
If the cleansing that is currently going on across the country were to be extended to the soiled systems and the goodwill extended, we would have the opportunity to see the country healed of more endemic problems than just a pandemic virus.