Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Not talking about health and the difficulties for those who must

While I am not contractually constrained from doing so, I tend not to share many of my own thoughts on health policy on public platforms such as this blog or social media. My job is as a policy and public affairs officer for a health sector organisation and thus it seems good practice to keep my thoughts to myself rather than risk the potential of my opinions and those of the organisation I represent becoming conflated.

During the Covid-19 pandemic this has been both a source of occasional frustration and also a blessing. One of the difficulties is the decision-making process, and the reaction to it, occurs in the moment, but the scale and scope of the context need to be viewed with due perspective. We still talk of the Spanish Flu a century after it occurred and in one hundred years people are likely to speak of Covid-19 in a similar way.

There are certainly examples of moments in which I have found it difficult to understand certain decisions. Indeed, at the very start of the pandemic in the UK I found it frustrating that there was a delay in postponing a concert I had a ticket for. It did not take a genius to see that bringing 20,000 people together, many traveling to London, at that time would have been a bad idea. However, with neither concert promoter or government making a conclusive decision until 24 hours beforehand it was not ideal. In the end, the concert promoter made the correct decision to postpone. As it happens, that same weekend a big concert did take place in Cardiff Castle.

I recall during the 2019 Conservative leadership election, that I made reference to the need to choose a leader for five years of governance and not just to complete Brexit. The examples I used to illustrate this point were decisions over whether to intervene in a conflict we'd not yet considered or to respond to as yet unseen economic challenges. Little could any of us have predicted the rapidity and scale with which this theory would be tested.

I sometimes look at our political dialogue and feel it is more designed for the old divisions of the Brexit rows than it is for today. Targeted messaging to voter segments, often focused more on what someone is opposed to rather than what they agree with was an effective strategy between 2016-2019. Albeit is was a pretty shabby way to conduct politics. We frequently fall into the trap of perceiving the upcoming election as if it was in the context of the previous one. This has time and time again been proven to give a false impression. Party machines are quick to catch up with one another but also the context can shift swiftly. I wonder whether in 2020 the focus among the electorate will have switched from ideological divides to competence. Though, I am not certain.

In the General Elections of 2017 and 2019 we saw a significant churn in MPs of both major UK parties. While not the case in every instance, broadly out went the moderate and mainstream and in came the ideological whether that be over Brexit or the hard left politics of Jeremy Corbyn. While the personnel may not have changed to the same extent in Wales, there are aspects of the campaigning style in some parties which has evolved to reflect the 2016-2019 lines of division. Perhaps we will learn how well that overlays onto the circumstances of the modern scenario come the Senedd elections. Once again, I do not think we can predict with much certainty, but those still fighting the 2019 election in 2020 with a view to a 2021 ballot probably should at least pause for thought.

I referred above as to how not being able to say too much in public about health policy is a source of frustration and a blessing. There have definitely been moments over recent weeks in which I have wanted to express an opinion but opted not to. I shall be honest and say that on a few occasions, I have looked back with hindsight and been pleased that I had a reason to constrain what I might have said.  I would like to think that the majority of comments I make a reasonably well considered, but with so much still unknown about Covid-19 and yet also a vast array of data which is open to interpretation it can be hard to make a useful contribution to the public debate as an individual.

Our elected politicians do not have the luxury of withholding judgement. Our modern society expects them to have a view on everything instantly. That is unreasonable in usual times, but is utterly impossible during the pandemic. Our MPs and MSs would be well to rein in some of the faux outrage of which they are so fond. I found it difficult to understand why some who had barely batted an eyelid when I, as a resident of Newport, was prohibited from travelling to west Wales, but were convinced that preventing people from Liverpool from doing so was a constitutional abomination. We could all do with some calmer reflection and rationality in the political dialogue.

Yet, we as the electorate must also play our part in creating this political culture. If we condemn a political decision we believe is wrong as if it came from a position of mal-intent then it should not surprise us if MPs and MSs do likewise. There is no playbook for Covid-19. MPs, MSs and their expert advisors are learning as they go. We should acknowledge the difficult task they have, even when we disagree with the approach they take. Robust scrutiny of decision-making is not the same as doubting someone's motivation.