IslingtonTribune

The independent London newspaper

Here are the facts – but only until you see through the spin

17 April, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Illustration: www.johnsadlerillustration.com

WHEN I worked in China years ago the government controlled news. There was no press freedom as we know it. All the newspapers carried government announce­ments and opinions.

Phone contact for foreign journalists was limited, foreign newspapers had to be flown in from Hong Kong.

But for high officials and selected people a special four-page broad­sheet prosaically called For Your

Information was available, containing extracts from all the world’s major newspapers. It was important that they were kept better informed.

I think of this when I watch government ministers at their daily press conference, knowing that what they are saying can be politely described as spin and obfuscation,

The other day health secretary Matt Hancock made an extraordinary statement that wearing masks was not necessary as there was no proof of their usefulness. This, of course, flew in the face of actions taken by governments all over the world, and particularly those in China and South Korea which have successfully managed – so far – to control the disease.

According to scientists I have looked up, a carrier of the disease actually spits out particles in speech to a radius of six feet so a mask would be more than useful.

Under pressure after the foolish dismissal of masks, government officials now say the situation is being revised.

Why do government ministers indulge in such errors? Are they nasty? Are they malicious? Are they simply ill-informed and pretty thoughtless?

The British Medical Journal, the weekly doctors magazine, put it politely pointing out that “scarcity” is dictating policy. In other words, if you have not got an adequate supply of masks for the nation, because you never planned for it during the austerity programme, you decry their usefulness, pretend they are not of much use.

But none of this matters. We shouldn’t indulge in the blame game.

The likely position is that, firstly, fewer people will succumb to this disease in the summer: that is why the lockdown is likely to end soon. But it will return in the autumn and will not be controlled until a vaccine is found – and even then sometime ahead another mutation, perhaps, of the same virus will emerge. We have suffered many epidemics since the 90s – mad cow disease, Ebola, swine flu, and now Covid-19.

The point is that nations have to be ready, well equipped with testing systems in hand, protective equipment, ventilators or substitutes of one sort of another, and ready to massively intervene with short, planned lockdowns and public involvement.

Those who believe in the powers of the private market can see the ruins of their dreams all around them.

What is needed is more big government, not less; more public engagement in democracy, not repressive, draconian legislation. This is a kind of participative democ­racy. We can do this in Britain because we have a reasonably well-educated population able to see through spin and lies.

We have a kind of For Your Information – it’s called the social media. The government cannot suppress it – yet. Ministers, or their shadows, may say what they wish but the public can now click on the social media for alterna­tive views. A first step towards a participative democracy.

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