Opinion: the UK government needs to learn from multiple misjudgements during the pandemic and ensure these are not repeated

Having lived and worked in Ireland for the past 20 years, I found myself locked down in the UK in March, keenly watching the responses of both countries to the unfolding pandemic. The Irish response has been measured, sensitive and personal throughout – and the UK government should learn from this.

A good illustration was when British prime minister Boris Johnson made his now infamous quip on March 12th that the aim of government guidance was to flatten the peak of coronavirus or, as he put it, to "squash that sombrero". This came at the end of a press conference where Johnson had stated that "many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time". They say that timing is everything; and this seemed wholly inappropriate in the circumstances.

A problem with that presentation was that the personal element seemed distant to proceedings. It is easier to talk of squashing a sombrero where the people implicated in such a strategy are unknown, just as we react more deeply to hearing of a tragic event or outcome if we know the people involved.

Likewise, the discussions about "herd immunity" that followed make a lot more sense when "the herd" remains anonymous. Once it was shown that a policy of herd immunity would lead to avoidable catastrophe – and we began to think seriously about more than 200,000 individuals losing their lives - the conversation became harder to sustain.

Graphs and statistics do not have faces or names and it is a failing of modern politics that sensitivity to the personal element seems so often to be absent. To take another example, the current poverty statistics in the UK are disturbing, but perhaps they are easier to digest if we don’t think about George Orwell's description of the unemployed people he met who were "gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap".

Of course, things got personal for Johnson when he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on April 5th. His speech after leaving hospital is a remarkable illustration of the political becoming more sensitive to personal experience. Prior to that, Johnson was reported as irreverently calling the initiative to manufacture more respirators "operation last gasp". When he left hospital, he talked about love.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Nine News, Boris Johnson is in intensive care after Covid-19 symptoms worsened

Before April 5th, Johnson could be accused of being flippant about the unfolding crisis but a critical spell in hospital changed that. On leaving hospital, his tone was very different: "our NHS is the beating heart of this country… It is powered by love". Johnson’s personal trauma seemed to have taught him an important lesson, which suggests that actual experience of certain events, especially tragic ones or near-tragic ones, can be very powerful.

The death of family members, the bewildering force of grief, isolation away from children and grandchildren and the inability to have funerals for loved ones are examples of experiences that have had profound impacts on lives. They have also prompted people less affected by the virus to re-evaluate what’s important in life.

By comparison, reason can be rather weak when it comes to having an impact, or to trying to change the ways that we behave toward each other. For example, we can reason that driving too fast is not worth the risk of life-changing injury or death, either to ourselves or others. However, it is more likely that a close shave, a collision, or reading about a ghastly incident will do the trick when it comes to actually getting us to be more careful.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Tim Bale from Queen Mary University of London on Boris Johnson's decision to back Dominic Cummings following his advisor's lockdown travel breach

Some argue that genres like journalism or novels which increase our sensitivity to the plight of others, should be seen as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress. Change is created not by reason but by increasing our sensitivity. Tragic or near-tragic experiences can undoubtedly make us a lot more sensitive to the richness, depth and significance of human emotions.

A problem with things that increase our sensitivity, however, is that they can start to fade. For example, we might become slightly less disturbed by harrowing news reports if we read a lot of them; and the change in behaviour created by a near miss in a car might wear off a bit over time. Likewise, the impact of Johnson's experience may have already diminished.

But it is not at all obvious that this need be the case - and perhaps one of the lessons of the experience of Covid-19 is that it should not be the case. Indeed, one might forcefully suggest that the impact that Covid-19 has had on many families’ lives must not be forgotten by national governments in the same way that a near miss in a car can be. The UK government, especially, should learn from its multiple misjudgements throughout this crisis. It should not forget about them nor, if at all possible, ever make them again.

As both Ireland and the UK start to ease their lockdowns, a fine balancing act lies ahead. Trade-offs may have to be made between health risks and economic hardship. Clearly, economic hardship can also be highly destructive to health and quality of life, so the decisions ahead will be very difficult. However, a more sensitive and compassionate politics would be mindful of the heavy impact on life-chances in both directions. If we learn in a sustained way from the experience of Covid-19 and remain more sensitive to the suffering of others, we are likely to take a much deeper interest in poverty as well as public health.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ