Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Last week, I did an interview on the BBC World Service. Before speaking, I tuned in and listened to three minutes of international headlines about Coronavirus. Dodgy figures were coming out of Brazil, with gravediggers unable to meet demand. The Prime Minister of India was appealing for calm with tensions at fever-pitch, as extreme Hindu nationalists blamed Muslim Indians for spreading coronavirus.
And then over to America where, in New York state (population under 19 million), reported deaths are almost as high as the whole of the UK (population 65 million).
Then followed not an in-depth look at the global pandemic, and how it is affecting countries worldwide, but a five-minute interview with a British journalist criticising the UK Government because senior Cabinet Ministers and not the Prime Minister had chaired some initial COBRA meetings. I was baffled.
I don’t think it’s just me. The public ‘get it’ – but the media seems not to have cottoned on yet. The way the UK has responded to the Coronavirus – especially the way our NHS has stepped up, and the Government has supported the economy to prevent job losses – has been good: not perfect, and those imperfections should be reflected in coverage but, in the round, solid.
Despite dire warnings, our NHS hasn’t toppled over: indeed, the second weekly call with my local NHS trust recorded that only 25 per cent of existing ICU capacity is being used for Coronavirus patients (with the local Nightingale hospital not yet needed, and not counted in those figues).
My team phoned round local doctors’ surgeries and nursing homes, wanting to find out if media reports of dire PPE shortages were true, while I spoke to the local NHS trust. Yes, it had been a bit touch and go, with supplies down to a few days at some points. But local hospitals had not run out of anything – they’d not even had to use the 7,000 lab coats they’d purchased in lieu of traditional scrubs, despite having to use far more PPE than normal.
A similar story came back from local care homes and doctors surgeries: there had been definite initial concerns, with an unprecedented increase in demand for PPE. But local assistance (much praise is due to local firms and volunteers stepping up to help), plus a now functioning NHS system, had seen them over the initial surge in need, and they have what they need, in line with guidelines.
And testing? The local trust has not had itsr own capacity (but that will be coming online in the next new days), and so they were having to send them to Gateshead and Newcastle. Turnaround time 24 hours maximum. Not the shambles the media and opposition would have you believe.
Indeed, our NHS, a system that the media and the opposition parties widely decry as being woefully underfunded (when in fact the average percentage funding as a share of GDP has been consistently higher than it was under Labour’s 13 years in office) has stood up incredibly well.
The major concern that local NHS services have is that people who should be going into hospital with pregnancy issues, heart conditions and strokes in particular weren’t, because they’d been scared by stories – and that’s what they are – of a system overwhelmed and riddled with Covid-19.
With 850 people a day dying from cancer in the UK in normal times, NHS managers and clinictians I’ve spoken to are very worried that deaths from other illnesses could rise due to fear, rather than any underlying reality. A fear stoked by parts of the media out of its own self-importance, and by the less respectable members of Opposition parties who see everything as a subject on which to score party-political points, is costing lives.
The truth is that, as much as we’d like to, international comparisons are very difficult to understand at moment. We literally do not know what regimes like Iran and China are doing (and may never know).
We do know what totalitarian states do – remember that the Soviets hid the stats behind the Holodomor, for example – and, whereas we will be able to see the relative rates from our Office for National Statistics data, other countries statistics are not either as robust or as independent.
A recent article in the New York Times said that the issue is similar in many countries. Patrick Gerland, a demographer with the United Nations, cast doubt on whether any current information gives a full picture, and suggested that it would be a “couple of months” at least before even “a much clearer picture will be possible.”
As with the recent story of an academic decrying Britain and hoping that British scientists won’t discover a Coronavirus vaccine, it seems much of our media and opposition political establishment are desperate to plough a similar furrow. We mustn’t fall for it, and we must hold to account people trying to make hay and headlines – as I’m delighted Downing Street are doing – robustly rebutting much of the over-hyped, or just plain wrong, media stories.
Our free press is vitally important: without it we wouldn’t be who we are. There wouldn’t have been the exposure of the killers of Stephen Lawrence or the grooming gangs scandal. Nor would we have had great campaigns for better treatment of veterans, awareness of mental illness, and so on. The media have an ability to raise important issues up the agenda but, like all of us, it also has the ability to be self-important, vain and can be slow to adapt to changing situations.
This isn’t the moment to attempt ‘gotcha’ moments on Ministers and senior Government scientists working round the clock to do their best to protect life. To quote the main principles of the BBC charter, let’s have a bit more of the “inform”, a reasonable quantity of the “educate” and a little less of the “entertain” in news reporting. There’s real scope for good questioning, proper science, significant international coverage (this is, after all, a global pandemic) – things we’re constantly told by journalists that they actually want to do.
The reason it’s important that the media do this now is that, when this is over, there will be a proper look at what went well and what didn’t go so well – and it’s important the lessons are leaned. There will also be other stories that are important, and we need a media the public can trust to expose wrongdoing and hold power to account. It’s time for a little less sensationalism and a lot more steady and serious journalism as the world deals with a deadly pandemic.