There is a sketch in season 1, episode 3 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus called Stolen Newsreader that I have been thinking about a lot recently. It goes something like this: John Cleese begins to read the six o’clock news in calm, even tones when suddenly several bandits burst through the door. They fire their guns at the implied studio crew before stealing Cleese, who continues to read the news at his desk throughout, apparently unperturbed by the concurrent chaos. At no point does Cleese’s delivery change; not when he is hauled onto the open back of a truck; not when he is being driven along the motorway; not when he is being pushed at speed along a pier. The scene ends as Cleese, still at his desk, finishes his broadcast, just before being unceremoniously dumped into the sea. It’s funny. The absurdity of Cleese carrying on as normal, stoic and emotionless, while being abducted amuses me greatly. It feels somehow quintessentially British. Be advised, that is not necessarily a complement. You may be wondering at this point why I am dwelling so extensively on a sketch from 1969 in what is meant to be a news article about 2020 (I’m sure the editor is). Allow me to elaborate.
There is a lot in Stolen Newsreader that reminds me of England’s response to the current global health crisis. That probably sounds like a stretch, and perhaps I truly am losing my mind during lockdown, but bear with me. The sketch is obviously meant to be comedic, and I make no claim that it was conceived as biting social commentary. However, as an English student lack of authorial intent has never stopped me from finding apparent meaning where there is none, and I have no intention of stopping that practice now. With that said, here are some elements of the sketch that I find particularly evocative of present day Conservative misgovernment: the presence of a very real, obvious threat that is ostensibly ignored; the determination to behave as though things are normal when they very clearly are not; insufficient urgency in media coverage coupled with a failure to adequately challenge those actively perpetrating harm; and finally, and perhaps most pertinently, the visible, oncoming waves that Cleese is rushed towards and tipped into. That one could describe the English government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis in much the same way as I have described a scene from a satirical sketch show is alarming, to say the least. With talk of a second wave from the UK’s deputy chief medical officer, the baptism of Cleese and his desk becomes even more appropriate as a visual metaphor.
As with comedy, timing is everything in a crisis. Professor Neil Ferguson’s claim that implementing lockdown only a week earlier could have potentially saved 20,000 lives is, if accurate, a devastating illustration of this. Presently the death toll for the UK stands at 44,798, with the majority of these deaths occurring in England. That does not appear to be a coincidence; devolved governments have consistently been more cautious in their easing of lockdown, as demonstrated by the Institute for Government.
Scotland is not opening non-essential shops until 15 July, at which point wearing a face covering will be a precondition for admittance. Pubs are also expected to reopen at this point. In England, by contrast, pubs opened this past ‘Super Saturday’ (or July 4, a date of otherwise little to no significance elsewhere in the world). Many expressed dismay at images of revellers crowding the streets of Soho in London, as ongoing coverage of the night made it clear that alcohol is not conducive to successful social distancing. While I share the concerns of those fearing a second wave and lockdown, I am also partially sympathetic to those who felt they needed a drink. Certainly, it was infuriating to watch BBC vox pops where people expressed lack of concern over the virus, but many people will have just wanted to see friends and family after several months of relative isolation. The government’s messaging over this crisis is also largely to blame: if you say something popular is once again okay, people will most likely do it. Announcing it was alright for pubs to reopen tells people they can go with a clear conscience.
It is hard not to feel as though much of the confusion plaguing the country stems from the now infamous ‘common sense’ defence of wayward government advisor Dominic Cummings. That scandal taught people that they could interpret the lockdown rules however they wanted, as long as they just used their ‘instinct’. Some people have undoubtedly been reckless in flouting lockdown procedure, but many have probably done what seemed sensible to them after this type of thinking was endorsed by the Prime Minister. It is for this reason that any second wave stemming from public gatherings should fall at the feet of the government first; in protecting Cummings, Johnson sacrificed national cohesion and likely created the conditions for a viral resurgence. Please excuse me momentarily while I go and repeat my mantra for this month (‘I will not spend another 1000 words ranting about Dominic Cummings, I will not spend another 1000 words ranting about Dominic Cummings, etc.’)
As the WHO continues to investigate the properties of Covid 19, it is important to be cautious in our efforts to return to ‘normal’ life. We should try and remain calm, but continue to challenge obfuscations and deceit propagated by those leading us towards further disaster. In short, although we must be reasonable, we must not let ourselves be thrown into the sea. Given the way this year is going I am personally inclined to practice not being seen, at least until this crisis is properly under control.