“A fight we never picked against an enemy we still don’t entirely understand.”
So spoke Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his very welcome return to our television screens after his own close call in intensive care.
We often speak of individuals fighting a disease. I know this can make some people uncomfortable, as if it implies that those that do not recover didn’t fight hard enough.
That simply isn’t the case – if you contract a serious disease, especially one like coronavirus, your fate is mostly down to your own good or ill fortune, coupled with the skill of the professionals who treat you.
But at a wider level, this is indeed a national battle. However this front line is not manned by soldiers, even though the Armed Forces have played a huge role – they have been key to establishing field hospitals like the NHS Nightingale and they have also assisted greatly in coordinating the logistics of supplying protective equipment.
No, the front line in this war is manned by doctors, nurses, care workers and everyone who supports them across the country – porters, cooks, cleaners and pharmacists. Healthcare workers of every description have played their part with enormous personal courage.
The wider public have played their part too. By sticking to the rules on social distancing and minimising trips out to buy essentials, we have all collectively formed a shield around our NHS and simultaneously protected the most vulnerable members of our society.
The Prime Minister also referenced the fact that we do not fully understand the nature of the coronavirus. It is clear from my evidence sessions on the Commons Science & Technology Select Committee that scientists are making huge strides, but there are still a number of unanswered questions.
We do not know how many people have had the coronavirus without symptoms and we do not yet have an antibody test of sufficient accuracy to find that out.
We also do not have a vaccine, although the evidence we heard was very promising that there would be one eventually. The question is over how long that will take.
Social distancing is absolutely key at the moment, but we know it is taking a toll on our economy and sadly on many people’s mental health as well.
Science tells us that the only way to ultimately defeat a virus such as this is by enough people having immunity to it so that it cannot spread further. So we must all hope that the extraordinary effort which vaccine researchers around the world are putting in will bear fruit quickly.
We must not lose sight of the personal in among the epic scale of this pandemic. Each death is an individual tragedy for the family and friends concerned, whether their loved one was taken months before their time or years.
Many were unable to be with their relatives at the end; and the difficulty of holding a proper funeral only compounds the anguish.
The poet John Donne famously wrote, shortly after a bout of suspected typhoid fever: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
No man is an island. We are all part of our own individual communities, and we have wider identities and loyalties too – to Newcastle-under-Lyme, to Staffordshire, to the nation, and to the planet.
The bell will toll for each and every one of us eventually. And when we hear it toll for another, it reminds us all of our part in the greater whole.
I would like to thank you all, once again, for what you are doing to help the nation win this war – by staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. To close as I began, by quoting the Prime Minister’s message: “We will defeat this coronavirus and we will defeat it together.”
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