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10 December 2020

Editor’s Note: A new politics of the common good and Jonathan Van-Tam’s mixed metaphors

The public have been reassured by the deputy chief medical officer's folksy analogies and "Mum test".   

By Jason Cowley

Ivan Krastev’s Is It Tomorrow Yet? is a long essay published as a short book in which, with characteristic wit and insight, he grapples with what he calls the paradoxes of the pandemic. For Krastev, a Bulgarian public intellectual based at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, epidemics do not only transform society, they also reveal the truth of who we are and how we have been living. “Fear of the virus in the early stages of the pandemic inspired a state of national unity that many societies have not experienced in years, but in the longer term it will deepen existing social and political divides,” he writes. I hope he’s wrong. It’s true the renewed sense of solidarity we experienced in the spring – consider those 750,000 people in the UK who responded within a few days to the government’s appeal for volunteers to support the NHS – had dissipated by midsummer.

As Covid deepened and amplified existing racial, social and political divides, people became restive and more rancorous, especially after the risible press conference by Dominic Cummings, then Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, in the Downing Street garden in May. But that sense of social solidarity was not imagined. It existed and continues to exist. If we are to recover from this traumatic year, we will need new sources of social cohesion and solidarity and to evolve a new politics of the common good so far absent from the programmes of all our political parties. The key question, as framed by Michael Sandel in his new book The Tyranny of Merit, is this: “What counts as a valuable contribution to the common good, and what do we owe one another as citizens?” 

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The Guardian reports that Jonathan Van-Tam (JVT, as Boris Johnson calls him), the deputy chief medical officer for England, is now widely considered to be the government’s most effective communicator at Covid media briefings. His style is more colloquial and relaxed than that of his boss, Chris “next slide please” Whitty, who has the buttoned-up, anxious manner of a vicar from a 1970s sitcom. Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, is measured and cerebral, and Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, is sincere, but as a “government insider” told Politico, they “don’t come up on the radar”.

By contrast, JVT’s folksy metaphors – often involving football and trains coming in and out of stations – are much enjoyed (though sometimes mixed). His recent remark that the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at minus 70 degrees, was not a yoghurt that could be taken in and out of the fridge raised a smile while being easily understood. His “Mum test” is good, too. Would I advise my 78-year-old mother to take the vaccine, he asks. The answer: an emphatic yes. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, blusters and boasts, and carries on as Prime Minister into another year.

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[see also: The UK government’s vaccine nationalism is not only distasteful – it’s dangerous]

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Since late March the New Statesman team has been working remotely on the magazine and website. Some of us have had a few days back in the office, especially during the summer, but, on the whole, we have communicated via Zoom and Teams calls and even the occasional landline phone conversation (remember those?). The process has been absolutely seamless thanks to the diligence and enthusiasm of the team. My colleague Indra Warnes, who is sadly starting a new job soon, reminded me last week that she had signed off from the office in March with the words, “See you in May or June!” And here we are in December and there’s still no indication when we might return full-time.

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The question now is, should we? Should office workers more generally return to the rituals of old, such as commuting on shabby, expensive and too-often delayed trains and, in the capital, where property prices and high rents push more and more workers out into the distant suburbs, on absurdly overcrowded rush-hour Tubes? What has been lost but also more importantly gained from the mass conversion, through necessity, to homeworking?

Not everyone, of course, has the opportunity to work from home or the available space in which to do so. As Maurice Glasman wrote, a new definition of “working class” is not being able to work from home. And homeworking, for some, can be lonely and gruelling. Yet for too long the corporate world has been dominated by a culture of presenteeism, of the need to be continuously present. Few would dispute that there have been too many pointless meetings and too much unnecessary business travel, especially international travel, which exacerbates environmental bads.

I miss London life because journalism is collaborative, and the best ideas often come from chance encounters or spontaneous conversations with colleagues. But not everyone relishes office life or can tolerate the grind of commuting. The pandemic has changed so much about how we live, work and communicate. One change for the better, I hope, will be new ways of working that can liberate us from unloved rituals and create new, thrilling possibilities, such as the revival of local town centres as more of us stay closer to home for longer.

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As I’ve written before, I try to read all letters and emails that are sent to us, and hearing what our readers think of our work is one of the pleasures of being editor – even more so during this pandemic year. As this is my last Note of 2020, may I thank our readers for their continuing support – we have welcomed many thousands of new subscribers over recent months – and wish you all a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year. The next issue of the magazine will be out on 7 January. In the meantime, it will be business as usual for NewStatesman.com on which, through the week, we now publish a daily edition at 6pm. 

[see also: Letter of the week: The sovereignty sham]

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special