Here we are, then. TFI whatever day it is. It might feel unclear if you’re suffering from a persistent cough or are just trying to hack up the red pill.
Unfortunately, return to the simulation is impossible. As I type this, both Boris Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have tested positive for coronavirus, while the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, is self-isolating. The prime minister says he is experiencing mild symptoms, and will self-isolate in Downing Street, where he is continuing to helm the UK’s response to the pandemic. Fatalistically speaking, this die was cast the second we learned he’d appointed Dominic Raab as his “designated survivor”. Why lie about who we are, you know? Just activate whatever protocol installs a roid-fuelled salesman for Magnet kitchen (Esher branch), whose unbeaten monthly commission run will only come to a horrifying end if anyone checks the showroom freezers.
Soon pale rider Richard Branson will hove into view, offering to never sue the NHS again in return for a bailout
A quick process question, before we go on: does the designated survivor now require a designated survivor, and so on? I daren’t turn on the news in case there’s a political scientist extrapolating how few steps the model takes to get us to Prime Minister Gemma Collins.
Johnson isn’t the only ultra-high-profile sufferer, of course, after Prince Charles’s diagnosis dominated Wednesday’s headlines. It’s thought experts considered contact tracing, but abandoned it when they realised the sheer multitudes of people involved in picking up after HRH even between reveille and the breakfast table. Happily, the presence of Covid-19 is not thought to make any material difference to Prince Charles’s preferred domestic procedures. The royal toothpaste will still be squeezed on to the royal toothbrush by a key-worker servant; only they’ll do it in one of the rubber-gloved laboratory boxes they use to handle Prince Andrew’s bedsheets.
In the meantime, there continues to be a huge range of reactions to the suspension of life as we knew it. Americans are buying more guns, though mass school closures mean there are fewer favoured locations to use them. In the UK on Thursday night, millions stood on doorsteps or leaned from their windows to applaud NHS and care workers, a vastly moving moment confused only by the participation of many Conservative MPs and ministers who in 2017 not only voted against a pay rise for nurses, but loudly clapped its defeat – and whose funding priorities have left some frontline NHS workers threatening to resign over lack of protective equipment. The World Health Organization recommends the sort of full-body armour you’d want to attend dinner at Michael Gove’s; current government largesse allows for a Kiss the Cook apron and a cardboard Simon Cowell mask.
Then again, the coronavirus seems to be quite the learning experience for some. On Monday, Tory MP Steve Double rose in the house to marvel that the crisis is “teaching us that many people that we consider to be low skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country”. He asked the home secretary, Priti Patel, to review the government’s new points-based immigration system “to reflect the things we’ve learned”.
While many are optimistic we’ll entirely remake society in the wake of all this, I’m not so sure. If it takes a once-in-100-years global pandemic to jolt people in public office into the realisation that nurses are actually quite valuable, it’s pretty hard to scale up for the next logical step. You’re essentially looking at an extinction-level event to nudge them into the headspace where we reward said nurses even slightly better. The manifesto page where you seek buy-in for your plan to increase public-sector pay just says “re-route a fucking asteroid towards us”.
Elsewhere, it’s hard to know what to make of the supposed humbling of Sports Direct sith Mike Ashley and Wetherspoons taplord Tim Martin. Both men have U-turned on their commercial reaction to the government’s coronavirus measures. On the one hand, it’s the absolute bare minimum, staged solely out of fear for their future bottom lines. On the other, it could be the darkest harbinger yet. Indeed, if you’ve currently got the Book of the Revelation open, you might have been expecting them. Two hoarse men of the apocalypse, gruffly locating some knock-off contrition. Give it a couple of days and pale rider Richard Branson will hove into view, offering to never sue the NHS again in return for a bailout for his airline. Who knows how many villains the coronaverse has yet to reveal to us?
To recap the ones we are aware of, Martin enlivened Tuesday evening by releasing an occasionally coherent video in which he lurched round his kitchen with a mug and put 43,000 people out of work. I can’t tell you it divided the critics. Even in normal lighting, Martin looks like he’s holding a torch under his chin and telling you a ghost story about what’s going to happen to you in one of his pubs. Then again, every night is Halloween night down the ’Spoons, and Martin always wears the same costume: coarse fisherman whose wife is missing after 30 years of coercive control. Neighbours say she planned to leave him.
Like I said, it’s just fancy dress. But hats off to Britain, which seems to have realised that unless it moves to swift online justice, then Martin is the metaphorical fate waiting for all of us down a remote country lane. Following his monstering, Martin has decided that refusing to pay his staff for last week’s work and telling them to try their luck at Tesco doesn’t reflect the man he is at all. I’m sure he’ll grow from this.
As for Ashley, he too on Friday morning apologised for being himself (I paraphrase), adding that his emails to the government were “ill judged and poorly timed”. No doubt. And yet, it’s decidedly awkward that the government made time to read whatever quarter-witted bile Ashley sent, but claims not to have seen the communication from the EU about getting in on their scheme to buy extra ventilators. Given that Matt Hancock specifically referred to the scheme on last week’s Question Time, we have to ask: is there a tear in the bullshit-time continuum? Or did the government reject a major potential source of ventilators to own the libs? Alternate fan theories are available; do mark this story as “developing”.
Finally, it took less than 48 hours of wielding new powers before Derbyshire police were grotesquely misapplying them by using drones to track individual or family groups of walkers in the Peak District and shame them on social media. They’ve come in for a lot of stick for it, but let’s not throw the format out entirely. Could it not be repurposed? Given the looming hole in content schedules now that all TV production has been halted, why not release Mike Ashley in the very remotest part of the Peak District, armed only with a backpack containing a 4kg kettle bell (up from £9.99 to £14.99), a 12kg kettle bell (up from £29.99 to £39.99) and a £452 skipping rope? Derbyshire police could then track and film one man’s desperate attempt to get back to civilisation. On the current, darkening trajectory, Ashley’s bound to be something-in-line to designated survivor status. Plus, you’ve got to think next year’s Bafta cinematography category would be theirs to lose.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist