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This country has survived crises before. And – if we follow the advice and come together – we will persevere again

5 min read

This is the third national crisis of my lifetime. It is a time for the nation to come together, rather than be pulled apart.

Being confined at home during a time like this not only concentrates the mind but brings back memories.

I have lived through three national crises all of which were health related. The first was the Second World War when my small family home was awkwardly situated on the direct enemy flight path into London. My memory of those war years is obviously spasmodic. I remember the Morrison shelter and the bombs which brought down our ceilings, the German fighter which strafed our back garden and watching a V2 rocket on its way to the capital. 

And the health relevance? It was the common experience of fighting together which was the prelude to the birth of the National Health Service. As we emerged from the ashes of war it was unsurprising that my elders decided on a health service which would serve all people, irrespective of their ability to pay. Since then, it has developed into a highly valued and globally admired service and in times of national crisis it continues to be a unifying force. 

There have been two health crises that I have lived through since those early days. The first concerned HIV/AIDS. As health secretary in the 1980s I faced the truly tragic position of a disease for which there was no cure. Being diagnosed as HIV positive was an almost invariable death sentence. 

The proposed solutions were many. Some said those living with HIV/AIDS should be quarantined for life; others argued that it was not so much a matter of public health but morality. One religious leader told me that my campaign to warn the public “tells people not what is right but how to do wrong and get away with it.” Some others said the suffering should, effectively, be ignored and that gay people should be left to their own devices. 

My view was it was an issue of public health and, happily, I had the advice of health experts inside the Department such as the saintly chief medical officer Donald Acheson. There was little we could do for those who had already contracted the virus but what we could do was warn those who were unaffected. To do this we launched the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign using all the media available at the time, including television, and a leaflet drop to every household in the country. This was all done with the wholehearted support of the health service and the result was that thousands of lives were saved. We followed the public health advice.

The third crisis is the one that we are all now living through – coronavirus. Again we have had rival theories about how best to fight the threat, but again my conclusion has been that we should follow the advice of experts. There are no guarantees (we are dealing with a new virus) but judging from past experience it is likely that their advice will save lives.

All the signs are that the vast majority of the public are following the advice. We trust the health service and the doctors and nurses who work so valiantly within it. The NHS is a trusted institution and as I reflect on that fact, I can’t help but think about other national institutions which, unfairly in my opinion, have been under some attack in recent years. 

Sensible reform is one thing, but the public mood is not in favour of uprooting trusted institutions which have served the public well

Take, for example, the courts and judiciary who have come in for much criticism, yet respect for the rule of law and respect for the courts is absolutely fundamental in a democratic society. The public trust the courts and we would be in serious trouble as a country if that was destroyed. 

Or take the civil service which is once again under attack. I was a cabinet minister for ten years and found the advice of civil servants to be both invaluable and supportive. I was never undermined and I remember one civil servant coming up to me after the successful passage of one allegedly “radical” bill, saying that it had made his whole civil service career worthwhile. 

Or take the BBC. They are under constant attack at home although much more rarely overseas where people tend to think we are very fortunate to have such a high-quality public service broadcaster. I remember going to see the chairman and director general of the BBC at the start of the AIDS crisis. Their response was an immediate: “How can we help?”

A case for reform can be made in each one, but perhaps we should recognize that, as a result of coronavirus, the caravan has moved on. Sensible reform is one thing, but the public mood is not in favour of uprooting trusted institutions which have served the public well. This is a time for the nation to come together rather than be pulled apart. 

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