Darryl Morris Weekly – 18.09.20 – Groundhog Day

A few weeks ago, my Grandad came down with a fever. I wrote at the time of the shuddering concern – the fear he’d contracted the virus and what it would mean. We swiftly ordered him a test and were promised it would arrive the next morning. In the meantime, his condition worsened and he was carted off to hospital in an ambulance. A test on arrival at the hospital confirmed he didn’t have the virus – an infection was found in his leg, after being caught up in some brambles while out walking, and after a boring couple of days on some stiff antibiotics, he’s back on his feet. It was a relief to know he was OK, but it was also a relief to know the system seemed to be working.

Since then, Bolton, my birthplace and his hometown, has become the epicentre of the outbreak in the UK. An investigation also found that no Coronavirus tests were available in the area, as well the other top ten hotspots. In the space of a couple of weeks, the town went from serving my Grandad with a rapid test, whichever way he needed it, to not having any at all. The town was plunged back to guessing who had or hadn’t got the infection, a situation that could have been devastating for my family.

There is a distinct groundhog day feeling to talking about testing. It’s eight months since the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic, and we are still grappling with how to control the spread to the virus.

Hindsight is a useful tool – but when we talked about the impact of reopening schools, we brushed past what it would do to the testing system. Teachers, unions, ministers and renowned epidemiologist Denise Welch queued up to make their case – it was safe, it wasn’t safe, they could socially distance, they couldn’t socially distance, it didn’t spread that badly in children, it spread as badly in children as it did adults. We needed to get our kids back to school, so ready or not, we took the leap. On reflection, we weren’t ready. More to the point, the testing system wasn’t ready.

Dido Harding, the controversial head of the test and trace programme, told MPs this week that officials hadn’t foreseen such a rapid rise in demand for tests. That is as extraordinary as it sounds.

While the groundhog day nature of this conversation can be frustrating and boring, it’s also quite helpful. When you live something over and over, it becomes easier to predict the problems that will arise. Testing – or a lack thereof – has come up time and time again. All roads to recovery are lined with tests. We know it is central to getting children back to school and the country back on it’s feet – how, then, could a higher demand have been unforeseen?

You don’t need to be an epidemiologist to know that. Some of this IS just common sense.

Despite that, I do find myself at risk of becoming the thing I have fought against. In last week’s newsletter, I admitted that I have slipped from the commitment to focus on experts and experiences. If you are an expert, you can talk about the numbers and the science. Otherwise, stick to sharing your experiences. Denise Welch remains a cautionary tale. I don’t want to make proclamations I am not in a position to make. And so, on this weekend’s show, we will stick firmly to experts and experiences.

Our resident virologist, Ria Lina, joins us again. We will figure out why and how we’ve got testing so wrong, what happens next, what’s changing about this virus and what is staying the same. She will do the expert bit, you and I can do the rest. I want to hear your experience of using the system. I’ll give you the story of getting my Grandad a test, and how much seems to have changed since then, and you can tell me if it’s worked for you or if you have been a victim of it’s failings.

Each broadcaster, radio station, TV show and newspaper will make their own choices and they are entitled to do so – but as the stakes ramp up, we should focus on being helpful, rather than hysterical.

It’s a trap you can fall into when covering the US election, too. The Road to the White House returns this weekend with Democrat Ed Hardy and Republican Greg Swenson going head to head on the candidates response to the California fires.

Climate change is unlikely to be a central issue in this election, but it’s been at the heart of the conversation this week. And the issue threw up another extraordinary moment in the campaign. On a visit to the site of the fires, Trump held a round table with firefighters, ecologists and scientists. In response to concern about the warming climate, Trump claimed it would ‘cool down eventually’. The scientist, unsurprisingly, disagreed, to which Trump claimed the science probably doesn’t know. While Trump engaged in a characteristically bizarre encounter, Biden took a familiar line too – driving home the seriousness of the problem and pointing to Trump’s failings in tackling it quick enough. It all felt a bit… Coronavirus.

While both candidates stuck to their scripts, it doesn’t come without risk. For Trump, recent polling suggests that Republican leaning woman in suburban areas (the areas most badly impacted by the affects of warming) are worried about climate change, and they’re becoming increasingly concerned about the President’s ambivalence to it. Equally, it could be a thorn in Biden’s side. The Trump campaign have been keen to paint him as beholden to the hard left of the Democratic Party. This is a hot issue for them, literally, and Biden’s tough stance could be framed as a weakness, pandering to the left and threatening industry. It may not be a defining issue of the election, but the stakes are high for both the climate and the candidates.

It’s an issue that exposes the gap between them – a gap that was on display a little closer to home this week, too. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy, stood in for an isolating Kier Starmer and took on Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions. A teenage Mum from Stockport, who dropped out of school at 16, grilling the Prime Minister in her strong northern twang was quite a refreshing sight.

There were, of course, those quick to dismiss her as thick. I asked several of her critics what they meant by that word. Various explanations came back: poor on detail and fumbling with language. Contrast that with the Prime Minister, who is notoriously poor on detail and clumsy with his words but very rarely, if ever, regarded as ‘thick’. The truth is that, for some, a northern accent equates to being stupid. It is a stereotype that has been played over and over in popular culture, and it lives on.

So, this weekend, we’ll talk about accents. What they mean in 2020, and if we’re likely to have a northern accent in Downing Street any time soon. Asking for… me.

See you in the morning.

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By Darryl Morris

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