First Thoughts: The effects of austerity, coronavirus and quarantine, and what universities are for

Could Corbyn’s advisers, such as Seumas Milne, not have got their hands on a draft of the Marmot report and waved it around during the campaign?

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I have warned in previous columns that Tory governments are bad for your health. Now a new report confirms that, since 2011, life expectancy in England has stopped improving, and even fallen for women in the most deprived communities outside London, and in some areas for men too. 

In a foreword, the lead author, Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology at University College London, writes: “This is shocking… if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving.”

Marmot has reported for some years on slowdowns in health improvement. But he was reluctant to blame them on austerity. Now he is unequivocal: “austerity has taken its toll” in rising child poverty, zero-hours contracts, more homelessness, increasing resort to food banks and much else. It “will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects”.

The shadows are longest in seats that Labour allowed Boris Johnson to wrest from it less than three months ago. Were the party’s leaders keeping in touch with Marmot and his team? Could Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers, some trained as reporters (yes, I mean you, Seumas Milne), not have got their hands on an early draft of the report and waved it around during the election campaign?

Why weren’t they shouting Marmot’s message from the rooftops, day after day?

Betraying their parents?

I do not agree with the government’s new immigration policy. But do I buy the argument, advanced by the Guardian’s Nesrine Malik and others, that Sajid Javid and Priti Patel should not support it because it would have barred their own unskilled parents from the UK? No. Just as I don’t buy the argument, often advanced by right-wing commentators, that Labour MPs who went to grammar schools shouldn’t support their abolition.

Fleeing a plague

Mass quarantines are nothing new, as writers recalled in last week’s NS. The most famous in Britain was at Eyam in 1666, when the Derbyshire village was hit by the bubonic plague then ravaging London. I was reminded of it the other night when I saw a gripping amateur drama production in Walthamstow, east London, of The Roses of Eyam, a play first performed in the 1970s. 

Led by the parish rector and his displaced Puritan predecessor, the inhabitants of Eyam – infected by a consignment of cloth sent from the capital – agreed to seal themselves off from the outside world. 

The quarantine began more than halfway through the 14-month epidemic when, after a winter lull, the disease entered its most deadly phase. Between a third and a half of the population died. Thanks to the villagers’ heroism, the rest of Derbyshire escaped the plague.

Or were they heroes? The play suggests their first instinct was to run. The clergymen, however, warned that if they left they would be shunned and forced into destitution before dying alone from starvation and thirst, as many refugees from London did. 

Only the rich could flee with much hope of safety. The royal court, for example, moved to Salisbury and then Oxford. But most of London’s city fathers, including the lord mayor, stayed put, as did Eyam’s rector.

The play brilliantly highlights the moral and practical dilemmas of coping with a deadly epidemic. Its author, Don Taylor, adapted it for BBC Two in 1973. As the coronavirus spreads, could the BBC show it again?

Perfection of the intellect 

“Universities,” instructs a report from Policy Exchange, a Tory think tank, “need to guard against being the voice of critics who actively despise… traditional values of patriotism… Universities have to show that they speak for and reflect the whole nation.” 

I thought MPs were supposed to speak for the nation, while universities were, as John Henry Newman put it, about “perfection of the intellect”. 

Be that as it may, I wonder what the Tory wonks have in mind. Professors of patriotism? Or a Mao-style programme of sending academics to pick Brussels sprouts in the fields of Lincolnshire?

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 28 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy

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