My friend, a neurosurgeon called Andrii Myzak, recently sent me a WhatsApp from Kyiv. “We are in pitch darkness in the evenings now. Only cars passing by illuminate the buildings and pavements with their lights.” Such is the result of Vladimir Putin’s cynical decision to target power stations across Ukraine. The drone and missile strikes have increased in frequency too. Six or seven air raid alerts yesterday, says Myzak, each necessitating hours spent huddled in the nearest bomb shelter. Normal life doesn’t stand a chance.
I was in Kyiv myself in October, having travelled to Ukraine to support and train doctors providing palliative care to patients approaching the end of their lives. My trip was curtailed by Putin’s brazen desire to rain terror on civilians. As our night train pulled into Kyiv central station, the buildings reverberated with the impact of missiles timed to maximise rush-hour bloodshed. One victim was a young children’s cancer doctor. Her car was incinerated as she drove home from her hospital night shift, making an orphan of her son, aged five. Another missile left a 30-foot crater in a children’s playground – as though roundabouts and sandpits have a shred of strategic value.
The hours I spent beneath the station in a concrete bunker were terrifying but – unlike everyone else in Kyiv that day – I had the luxury of being evacuated to safety. I’ve been left with an inedible conviction that war is all too easy to ignore. War, when filtered through the medium of print or screen, is nebulous, abstract, otherworldly – but up close it is incontrovertibly visceral. It’s the little girl in red shoes who trembles as she grips her mother’s hand in the shelter. It’s the neurosurgeon unable to help his patients in theatre because – yet again – the power has gone. It’s trying to keep on living your ordinary, precious life while knowing that the invading regime wants you – all of you – dead.
Imagine, for a moment, that Kyiv was a city in the UK. Imagine the surreal grimness of nightly curfews, the raw terror of the house next to yours turned to dust in an air strike. Putin wants the civilian population of Ukraine cold and cowering, draped in darkness and fear. We cannot let him win.
I was fascinated to spot Matt Hancock’s imminent memoir available for pre-orders on Amazon. In a break from his habits while in office, the former health secretary assures readers that Pandemic Diaries – co-authored with the seasoned NHS-basher Isabel Oakeshott – will be “definitive”, “honest” and “candid”. I’m hoping he will at last describe what secret elixir enabled him to oversee the NHS response to the worst global health crisis of our lifetime while still having the va-va-voom to conduct an extramarital affair. Hancock, it turns out, has other superpowers. His author blurb reveals not only that he’s the first sitting MP in a century to win a horse race but that in 2005 he apparently broke the world record for the most northerly game of cricket, before succumbing to frostbite. “He still retains all his fingers,” in case you were wondering. And if that doesn’t qualify you for a life as a Conservative MP, what does?
NHS on the line
There is nothing so conducive to political candour as being forced to relinquish power. When another former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, left office, he devoted a memoir to unpicking the causes of avoidable harm and deaths in the NHS. And it was good, too, in parts – zeroing in on the need to learn from mistakes by being entirely honest about what went wrong. He admitted that the NHS was underfunded and understaffed.
Now that he has become chancellor, will he stick to this view or revert to type? He knows as well as I do how horribly NHS patients are suffering. Hospitals are full, emergency services are strained, and patients are enduring – or dying in – unspeakable conditions in corridors, in ambulances stuck on hospital forecourts, or at home before the paramedics can even reach them. Hunt knows this. He claims to be deeply committed to patient safety. In his first act as chancellor is he seriously going to cut the budgets for health and social care?
War on women
I’m reeling from the news that Rishi Sunak has chosen Maria Caulfield as his minister for women. Do women’s reproductive rights mean nothing to our new prime minister? In 2019 Caulfield voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland, and supports cutting the abortion time limit. She used to be an officer in a parliamentary pro-life group. At best, her appointment is tin-eared. At worst, it’s a shape of things to come.
[See also: In the age of anger, who will offer a vision of the good life?]
This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak