In the depths of the Northumbrian countryside is Wallington, a substantial house and estate managed by the National Trust. The walled garden is idyllic, with a wealth of colour and a sense of tranquility, accompanied by the soft trickle of flowing water. A place of calm, colour, order and reflection.
The house at Wallington bears the motto of the Trevelyan family: ‘thym tryeth troth’. Otherwise rendered as time tries faith, it is a reminder that loyalties can be made in a moment but are proven over time. If we ever think about the word ‘troth’ it is probably in the words of marriage service according to the Book of Common Prayer. It is here that people plight their troth, giving both a pledge and their ‘truth’ to one another.
Time tends to reveal many things – not least that apparent truths in one age can become questionable and dangerous opinions when viewed from a distance. Often, even at the time when purported truths hold sway, there are lone voices which query the assumptions underpinning these claims to truth. As the UK woke up to the reality of pandemic there were already those who had seen and set out in detail the implications of the impending crisis. On 12 March 2020 Rory Stewart was willing to voice what was happening and the actions that were needed.
There are also times when the truth about the past continues to have serious political weight. At a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020 Matt Hancock characterised the Government’s response to the COVID risk in care homes as an attempt to provide a protective shield. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a political statement being made and been so certain of its mendacity. Being fully aware of what was happening in care homes the idea that any serious Government effort had gone into protecting people was absurd. Even the data in the public domain made it clear that deaths in care homes were running at twice their rate compared with recent years.
“Right from the start it’s been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock speaking at a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020
All the evidence suggests that care homes were off the Government’s radar. Early models for the pandemic failed to take account of the way care homes are embedded in communities and what that might mean for transmission. Despite early evidence that once established in a care home COVID could be lethal, rapid and unstoppable, the political determination to halt the spread to homes was weak at best. In fact, as the evidence from Dominic Cummings suggests, not only were care homes unprotected but decisions to discharge untested NHS patients to homes caused illness and death. This is the detail which undermines the claim that any serious attempt was made to throw a protective ring round our most vulnerable citizens.
In the walled garden of Wallington all this seems far away. Places of tranquility invite us to take the long view and consider how humanity has lived through many different moments of crisis. Time continues to flow and every age can learn from critical experiences, drawing on painful episodes in order to become more just and merciful – or choose instead to entrench social inequalities with a spirit of fear and suspicion.
If building back better means anything it must be about more than an exaggerated version of the past. From the degree of social inequality, to the environment, political apathy and consumerism, we owe the people who have died more than a warmed up version of previous policies. The pain of loss during the last 15 months is continuing to emerge. During Radio 4’s weekly phone in show, ‘Any Answers?’ a grieving widow noted not only the death she had experienced but its circumstances. Loss of contact in the months before death was a devastating cost in a marriage that spanned many decades.
In the months ahead – and through the promised inquiry – the detail of individual truths will be tested. However, these details of response (and lack of response) must come to inform the greater truth of how we live as a society and global community. Failing to do this will be a betrayal of the multiple losses experience during COVID-19, and the lessons that have come at such great cost. We need a better vision coming out of this crisis. A vision with a much stronger commitment to ‘love one another’. William Temple once said that it is impossible for governments to love individuals. However, there is an alternative way for this to be expressed. He commented: ‘love in social organisation is justice’. Let’s not deny future generations the justice they seek and deserve.