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29 April 2020

First Thoughts: Johnson talks while Ardern acts, ads in the air, and the FT’s media hacker

New Zealand has had only 19 deaths among its 4.8 million population. 

By Peter Wilby

Boris Johnson returns with typically macho language: comparing coronavirus to “an unexpected and invisible mugger”, he says “this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the ground”. In March, before his own hospitalisation, Johnson spoke a little more confidently, promising to send the virus “packing” by June. 

New Zealand’s Labour premier, Jacinda Ardern, has already done that. For several days, new cases have been in single figures. The country has had only 19 deaths among its 4.8 million population. Ardern achieved this not through the use of improbable metaphors but through rigorous testing and tracing of contacts, and setting out, clearly, publicly and in advance, four “alert levels” of measures to “eliminate” the disease. With R – the number to whom each infected person transmits the virus – now below 0.5, the country has just moved from level 4 to 3, allowing 400,000 to return to work.

Ardern’s reward, despite one of the world’s most severe lockdowns, is a public approval rating of 87 per cent. The UK government’s is 51 per cent and falling.

Drive-through life

The deep blue skies, the sweet-smelling air, the audible bird song: enjoy them while you can. Once the lockdown is eased, traffic noise and pollution will be worse than ever. Avoiding the perils of trains and buses, people will cocoon themselves in their cars. What could be a better form of social distancing than travelling and even getting your entertainment in a metal box? The English National Opera plans drive-in performances at Alexandra Palace in north London, with the audience flashing lights or honking horns instead of clapping. Drive-in cinemas, ubiquitous in 1950s America, could make a comeback. So could drive-in restaurants, with waiters on roller-skates. Drive-through supermarkets and shopping malls, anybody? Drive-in sports stadiums? Welcome to the future.

Sky-high profits

Here’s another reason why unblemished skies won’t last. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has announced that skywriting and skytyping – messages written by aircraft emission trails, which have been banned here since 1960 – will be legalised. This follows “public consultation”.

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You don’t remember being consulted? Oh, yes, you were. A Transport Department document explained the economic benefits of allowing advertising and personal messages such as birthday congratulations and marriage proposals in the sky. Since no message would last more than four minutes, visual intrusion and noise would be “negligible”, it pleaded. 

The consultation lasted from 16 to 29 March, a period during which hospital Covid-19 deaths rose from 55 to 1,408 and the UK went into lockdown. Of just 93 responses, a large majority were hostile.  

The government will ignore the consultation results as it usually does after any consultation. But while you hope that ministers can contain the virus, do keep an eye on what else they’re up to.

Journo vs journo

Mass death is usually good news for journalists. When an aircraft crashes or a terrorist strikes, newspaper sales soar. But coronavirus turns this, like everything else, upside down. Readers can’t get out to buy papers. With recession approaching, advertising revenue disappears.

So it was nothing unusual when the Independent (now online-only) announced in a Zoom conference call that, with advertising down 50 per cent in a month, some employees would be furloughed and all would take pay cuts. But staff were surprised to see an account registered to (the Financial Times address) join the call. Despite its ejection, another account, later linked to the mobile number of an FT media reporter, Mark Di Stefano, stayed in the meeting. Details of the Independent’s plight were on Twitter before the meeting ended. After complaints, the FT has suspended Di Stefano.

Who would have thought that hacking, once rife in the tabloid press, would be revived by such an august organ as the Financial Times? And that the victims would not be royalty or celebrities, but other journalists?

This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave