John of Gaunt’s valedictory speech is one of the most famous texts left to us by Shakespeare. It paints a picture of an idyllic England – a second Eden – benefiting from natural advantages that make it the envy of other nations.
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,Richard II
Most of us remember parts of this lyrical acclaim for all that England might be. However, as Gaunt goes on to say, this vision of a country playing to its strengths is undermined by the reality of its government. The glory of ‘this sceptre isle’ has been leased out like a ‘pelting farm’. There is some uncertainty about what pelting means, but it isn’t difficult to hazard a guess. This is the kind of farm, not well managed by owners, let out instead to irresponsible tenants. Rotten deals and blotched paperwork converting the richness of the land into a shameful destruction. Feeding the greed of a few rather than the common wealth of the many.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
There is little to suggest that our island fortification has served us against infection. The recent report on the UK’s Government’s handling of the pandemic identifies a sense of resignation about widespread infection: “a policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for covid in the community: seeking to manage, but not suppress, infection“. As we journey into winter there is growing concern about the impact of an approach that appears to tolerate a high level of virus transmission. Quite what immediate and enduring damage that policy will inflict can only be guessed. Vaccination has made dramatic changes to the severity of illness and number of deaths, but very small percentages of very large numbers may still overwhelm the NHS.
Whether with COVID-19, human conflict or climate change, it appears that we continue to pose a danger to ourselves. We have turned parts of a beautiful world into pelting farmland, leased our lands and sold the future through the debt of bonds. Offering a different perspective on familiar problems, Professor Brian Cox gives us new cause for thought in his TV series Universe. According to quotes in The Guardian he believes that life capable of generating meaning may be a very rare phenomenon. It leads the paper to conclude that “the demise of Earth could wipe out meaning”.
Whilst humanity has flirted with the apocalypse since people could create meaning, our capability to destroy has never been greater. We have focused on the development of technologies that have made astonishing strides in our ability to alter and shape our environment. A question to which we should give urgent attention is whether our moral and ethical capacities have matched this pace of development? Looking around the world it appears that the growth of wisdom has lagged ever further behind our capacity to manipulate our environment.
Even the most glancing trawl of social media reveals the scary range of human folly and denial. There are people so fed up with the BBC that they have decided not to use it anymore because it should be called the ‘British COVID Corporation’. The BBC is simply seen as a co-conspirator with the Coronavirus hoax. Another message contains a video clip of a group entering an NHS Trust HQ and presenting ‘legal’ documents calling the hospital to account for its complicity with the hoax. Earlier last week Michael Gove was surrounded by a group of anti-lockdown protesters. Following the murder of an MP I can’t imagine how frightening this kind of experience must be, both for him and the Police then required to attend.
What is infuriating for so many people working in the NHS is that despite all the evidence to the contrary, people continue to think doctors and nurses are ‘making it up’. For a decade I served on a research ethics committee made up of leading figures from a number of fields. We had the services of a professional academic statistician; a lawyer; lay members; and senior nurses and consultants from a wide range of clinical disciplines. The focus on probity and evidence could not have been greater. While on a recent holiday I watched the Matt Damon narrated documentary film Inside Job. It tells the story of the 2008 financial crash and, among its many points, draws attention to the way leading economists with lucrative links to Wall Street wrote articles about the safety of new financial products without any hint of conflicting interests. By contrast, medical research has multiple safeguards to ensure this lack of transparency doesn’t happen. I’m not saying the NHS is perfect, but it is light years away from the free-for-all that appears to go on in the financial institutions featured in Inside Job.
Of course, I have little hope that reasoned argument will diminish the passion of resolute protesters. While it would be easy to dismiss them as voices from the outer fringes of society I am not so sanguine about their impact. The Government is listening to those who believe (or wish to believe) that living with high levels of COVID transmission and deaths is a price worth paying for an open society. Boris Johnson has quoted months ago as stating a preference for ‘bodies piled high‘ over another lockdown. Once again, it is likely to be the vulnerable and elderly who will pay the price for this policy, with the ONS reporting a range of common pre-existing conditions among those who have died in recent weeks.
How we navigate the coming months will tell a story about attitudes in the UK to the vulnerable, elderly and poor – and whether we prefer to be a pestilent and pelting farm, rather than a noble, blessed and happy isle.