One person is responsible for the devastating spread of Covid-19 through your community. That person is YOU! That, at least, is the line that the establishment media has been taking from the very beginning. As each new problem – largely the result of a failure of planning by the government – has come to public notice, so “SW1/Westminster Bubble” journalists have been on hand to deflect legitimate questioning of government by blaming ordinary people for the problem.
It began in early January with media attempts to generate a panic by reporting on largely non-existent shortages of face masks and hand sanitiser. Unsurprisingly, after the media had raised the possibility of shortages, people began purchasing these items, resulting in the very shortages that journalists had been desperate to find. Next came toilet roll; with the Daily Express being outed by Private Eye for printing a staged photograph of someone apparently leaving a supermarket with a trolley load of toilet paper. It later emerged that the man in the photograph was a close friend of the photographer. Photographers were later caught bribing stores into leaving shelves bare so as to give the impression of panic buying. And predictably enough, with supposed shortages in the news, people began to stock up. Food shortages materialised in the same way. Media creating the alarm and then standing by to await the inevitable rush to the stores to buy up the remaining stock.
“Have you noticed that one of the main features of panic buying is that it is always done by other people, and never by ourselves? It is a label we attach to others in order to make ourselves feel better about our own shopping choices. He panic buys. You stock up. I tirelessly provide food for my family…
“True panic buying – as in, cupboards full to the rafters with ramen noodles or packets of pasta – is actually much less common than we think. When market analysis firm Kantar Worldpanel looked at data from 100,000 UK shoppers in mid-March, it found that only 3% of the population engaged in full-blown panic buying. The rest of the increase in food sales over the past month – an extra £1bn in the first three weeks of March – could be explained by consumers adding just a few extra items here and there.”
With China and Europe already locked down, only a confirmed idiot would have believed the UK government claim that a lockdown was unnecessary. Most of us quite correctly foresaw exactly the kind of lockdown that we are now living through; and purchased what additional provisions we could get hold of in the weeks before the shutdown began. And we were right to do so. The UK government had clearly made no plans for diverting food from the wholesale retail chain which services schools, hotels, restaurants and cafes into the smaller retail sector which would have to pick up the additional demand. Worse still, no plans had been developed to get food to the 1.5 million “highly vulnerable” people who have been instructed not to go out at all (even to exercise) for at least 12 weeks. In many cases, access to food depends upon the strength of local volunteer networks and the beneficence of local food outlets; with far too many people going without.
With supermarket shelves beginning to fill once again as wholesale supplies began to find their way into the retail chain, the media began to cover for another government failure – the lack of clear guidance on what, exactly, “social distancing” actually means. This wasn’t helped by a Prime Minister who had previously talked about and Englishman’s inalienable right to go to the pub, and a government that had seen no problem with the Cheltenham Festival or the large Stereophonics gig just days before the lockdown began.
The media delighted in the publication of pictures showing crowds of people walking in the Welsh hills, London parks and along seaside promenades on the final weekend before the lockdown. And no doubt there were idiots whose actions will have spread more Covid-19 around than might otherwise have been the case – although the Prime Minister’s own actions wandering around shaking hands with hospital staff may well have spread more of the lethal virus than a few people getting a bit too close in their local park. In any case, the media have been far more reticent when it comes to chastising the rich when they break the rules.
Indeed, poorer people – particularly those living in single rooms, bedsits and tower blocks – have far more need to use their local park as rich businessmen have to fly off to the South of France. As Siobhán McGuirk at Red Pepper explains:
“Despite its vague, ever-changing messaging about how the UK population might shield itself against the global coronavirus pandemic, the government has been consistent in building one key narrative: ‘selfish’ people are responsible for its rapid spread. In the midst of ongoing testing and protective clothing scandals, and as ministers needlessly delay announcement of an imminent lockdown extension, we’re being primed to blame each other for the consequences of repeated government missteps…
“Images circulating of seemingly ‘busy’ parks and bench-sitters reprimanded by police are not evidence of reckless behaviour. That’s just what it looks like when people in densely populated cities follow government advice. Inner London is home to 3.7 million people, with population density up to 16,360 per square kilometre. Basic maths forecasts that, if we all take our allocated hour, hundreds of thousands of people will be outside at any given time of the day. And if just two in three people go out between 11am and 5pm? You would expect to find 1 ,780 people per square kilometre walking around Tower Hamlets, 1,460 more milling about Kensington and Chelsea.”
Add in some media photographs shot with telephoto lenses which make people appear closer to one another than is actually the case, and you have yet another media-inspired moral panic which deflects attention away from the failures of government and serves only to divide ordinary people against each other.
And so we come to this week’s round of media outrage. First, the establishment media have finally woken up to the danger of pan-European food shortages caused by closed borders preventing migrant labour from working in the fields. This came to prominence because the UK government finally woke up to the fact that without additional seasonal migrant labour, food will have to be left to rot in the fields – in the same way as milk has been thrown into slurry pits and eggs have been left to rot because – again – government failed to plan for an event that has been a known risk for decades. Even the supposedly left-leaning Guardian could not stop itself from casting blame on British workers for the failure:
“Romanian workers are being flown in to help feed Britain amid a continuing recruitment crisis in the agriculture sector.
“Special charter flights have started flying into the UK from Bucharest with desperately needed workers for British farms that risk losing their crop of early summer fruit and vegetables because of the coronavirus lockdown…
“UK farmers are following Germany after a ‘feed the nation’ appeal backed by the environment secretary, George Eustice, failed to recruit enough British workers…
“The farming industry needs as many as 90,000 workers to harvest fruit and vegetables, but with borders closed in many countries it appealed to students and laid-off restaurant and hotel staff.
“Brighton-based Concordia, one of the biggest recruiters of volunteer workers in the country, said it had 35,000 applications of interest after the appeal.
“While the response was significant, it said only 16% – 5,500 people – opted to interview for a role, leaving a gap between supply and demand for pickers.”
Strangely enough, farming industry insiders were painting an entirely different picture a couple of weeks ago; Johann Tasker at Farmers Weekly reporting the good news that:
“Thousands of British people have applied to work on UK farms following an urgent appeal to help feed the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Recruitment agency Hops Labour Solutions said it had been inundated with applications after warning of a shortage of seasonal workers to help harvest crops.
“’It has been absolutely amazing,’ said Hops operations director Sarah Boparan.
“’We have had more than 6,000 people apply in two-and-a-half days. It has been a phenomenal response and we are so grateful to everyone who has applied.’”
The reason farms are still short of labour despite this effort to recruit newly unemployed workers is that the government wages support scheme that pays 80 percent of the wage bill of firms that furlough their workforce prevents those – de facto unemployed – workers from taking on the extra work without losing the pay they already receive or risking losing their employment if and when the lockdown is finally lifted. So, again, a lack of government planning rather than lazy British workers is why we are now seeing Romanian workers being flown in to prevent our food from rotting in the fields.
The second media villains of the week are those pesky ill people who – allegedly – have been panic buying so many medicines that we are now facing a national shortage. As Simon Read at the BBC puts it:
“Thousands of independent community pharmacies across the country are facing a cash crunch. The net result could be closures, leaving communities around the country with no local chemists…
“The biggest issue has been a sharp rise in demand for prescriptions.
“Making up the medicine is already time-consuming, but currently takes longer because staff are wearing protective equipment.
“Social-distancing has also had an effect.”
In classic blame the victim mode, Read goes on to document instances of anti-social behaviour on the part of patients who cannot access the medicines they need:
“Meanwhile workers at pharmacies have reported a rise in aggressive behaviour from frustrated customers, with some reportedly even being forced to hire security guards.
“Problems became so severe in one area that they launch a local campaign urging patients to respect pharmacy staff.”
Once again, then, it is our fault that medicines are in short supply and that essential community pharmacies might be forced to close. But hang on a moment, while this argument might be made about over-the-counter medicines – although even here, sales of drugs like paracetamol are restricted by UK suicide-prevention rules – prescriptions have to be issued by clinicians who have been instructed not to over-prescribe. To some extent, shortages may be the result of doctors ignoring this guidance in order to prescribe multiple prescriptions at once to limit their contact with at-risk patients. However, the truth is that the UK faced a medicine shortage long before someone decided that bat soup was a good idea. In an article about medicine shortages for Which? at the end of March, Anna Studman included this curious line:
“But even before the pandemic hit, there were issues with prescription medicine shortages in the UK.”
There were indeed. According to the community pharmacy trade journal C+D, medicine shortages have been an ongoing problem in the UK for several years:
“Medicine shortages have been an everyday issue for community pharmacy professionals for years. Spending time hunting for items by calling manufacturers is part of the daily schedule. But in September last year C+D discovered that pharmacy teams had suffered shortages in all 36 categories of medicines included in a reader survey over the previous six months…
“There is no public list of medicine shortages in the UK, so it is difficult to make accurate comparisons month-by-month. However, a C+D freedom-of-information (FOI) request to the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) revealed that by the end of November there had been 178 medicine shortages officially reported in 2019 – up from 159 in 2018.”
In November last year, Jim Swarbrick at European Pharmaceutical Review reported that:
“The UK National Health Service (NHS) is experiencing severe medicine shortages of many lifesaving drugs. [A] leaked document, from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), listed dozens of medicine scarcities in the NHS…
“Seventeen new drug shortages were reportedly discovered last week, including medicines for cancer, Parkinson’s disease, mental health problems and eye conditions.
“A further 69 types and doses of medications were allegedly found to have supply issues, including antibiotics for tuberculosis, diamorphine, some cancer drugs, heart condition drugs, Hepatitis vaccines and anti-epilepsy drugs.”
This speaks to some extent of a government that was happy to allow shortages of medicines long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus embarked on its world tour; and is in line with the general effort to under-fund the NHS prior to privatisation. However, it also indicates a dangerous over-dependence upon global medicines supply chains that extend back to China (India is also a major supplier of generic drugs, but depends upon China for precursor chemicals). As Carolyn Wickware at the Pharmaceutical Journal reported in December last year:
“Generics manufacturers have called for European leaders to move drugs manufacturing out of India and China to help stabilise the medicines supply chain.
“An open letter from the executive committee of Medicines for Europe — a representative body for European generics manufacturers — to the next European Commission (EC) on medicines shortages addressed the ’great concern’ caused by stock shortages.
“An investigation by The Pharmaceutical Journal in August 2019 revealed that half of all safety warnings from European and US drug regulators are issued to drug manufacturing sites in India and China, raising concerns over the fragility of the global supply chain.”
Pandemic shutdowns added to this growing medicines crisis as medicines and precursor chemical supplies were halted by the Chinese lockdown and as the Indian government responded by banning the export of drugs that it anticipated would be need to treat its domestic population. Understandably, competition is high on world pharmaceutical markets for the remaining medical supplies. And it is this rather than demanding UK patients which is fuelling the current shortages and price increases.
Not that the establishment media is going to tell you any of this. Blaming ordinary people, millions of whose lives have been ruined by the lack of government planning, is far easier than holding the departments of state to account. Much as I hate to find myself in agreement with Donald Trump, when it comes to the reporting of this crisis as it unfolds, it is difficult not to conclude that, in this at least, the establishment media really are “enemies of the people.”
As you made it to the end…
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