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The R factor

16 October 2020

THE Bishop of Burnley has describe the coronavirus as a “poverty-ometer”. It moves virtually unchecked, he writes, “through our nation’s poorest communities, fed by low-quality housing, and preying on the pre-existing health conditions that poverty inevitably causes”. This would be a hard-enough challenge in itself for the Government as it attempts to damp down a second outbreak. But unpleasant elements of class and politics are threatening these latest efforts, as Westminster reacts with incomprehension and the northern virus hotspots with anger. It does not help communications that the Government is predominantly southern and rural, while northern MPs and mayors are largely urban and Labour.

It is impossible to write about the situation without generalising, but, essentially, the Government continues to focus on behaviour, while representives of northern regions are looking at circumstance. Since schools have been ruled untouchable for an uncertain blend of scientific and social reasons, the opening and closing of pubs, clubs, and other entertainment venues has become the chief area of contention. Many social venues are frustrated that all the expensive precautions that they put in place to keep people safe, following government guidelines to the letter, are being ignored. They are at least as safe as houses, they say, and almost as safe as churches — although churches seldom have to cope with as much exuberance. Where housing is poor or overcrowded, meeting elsewhere becomes the only option. Even the tier-one restrictions are felt more keenly in poor urban areas than elsewhere.

The missing factor is respect. The Government, despite its “red-wall” constituencies, is felt not to respect local knowledge or conditions. The easing of restrictions after the first wave was based on the R-rate in the south-east. The fact that it was still high in the north has allowed it to flare up again there, like a house fire that was not properly damped down. Again, this has nothing to do with whether people in the north are less compliant than elsewhere, a persistent insult bandied about on social media. The danger, however, is that compliance is undermined as respect for the Government dwindles. If government-appointed scientists and Conservative back-bench MPs have started to challenge policy, is it any wonder that ordinary people start choosing which rules to follow, if any?

The one thing that commands respect is the coronavirus itself. While the young may wish to play the odds, the older generation with whom they come into contact, or those with poor health, are aware of their continuing susceptibility to a disease with long-term effects. The medics’ success at lowering the death rate paradoxically means that Covid patients spend longer in hospital. The growing strain on the NHS in northern regions is the best argument for intelligent collaboration over the measures needed to halt the spread of the virus.

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