Mary Brown from Colligarth Cottage in Sanday turned 90 on Tuesday. This will not come as news to listeners of last Friday’s Radio Orkney Request Programme, which for a time resembled a Brown family takeover. Those who tuned in will have heard the first airing of a tune written specially for Mary by David Bowen but, sadly, confirmation also that the planned celebration in Matchmakers is on hold for the time being.
Mary’s party is just one of many sacrifices being made daily by people in Orkney and across the UK since ‘lockdown’ restrictions were introduced at the end of March. As Mary would freely admit, her sacrifice is somewhat less painful than that faced by some.
However, these sacrifices help explain the visceral public reaction to examples of individuals in positions of responsibility or leadership being seen to bend, if not break those rules.
The Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings is the latest example. His journey from London to Durham with his family in the early days of lockdown prompted calls over the weekend, including from growing numbers of Tory MPs, for Mr Cummings to be sacked.
Mr Cummings’ explanation that he was an ‘essential’ worker and needed to be closer to wider family for childcare reasons once his wife contracted Covid has done little to dampen criticism. His suggestion that a further 30-mile trip to Castle Barnard, a popular tourist spot in the North West, allowed him to ‘test his eyesight’ before the return trip to London has simply added fuel to the fire.
Despite getting the backing of the Prime Minister, who insisted during a TV address on Sunday that his adviser had acted ‘reasonably’ and ‘with integrity’, Mr Cummings was forced to take the unprecedented step of holding his own, hour-long press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden on Monday. This was excruciating to watch and served only to dig Mr Cummings, and his boss, deeper into a hole. As for an apology, or any regret, both were conspicuous by their absence.
Together, Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings conveyed the impression of arrogance: an inability to see events from the perspective of the public, most of whom would dearly love to visit members of their wider family. For good and sensible reasons, however, that has not been an option over the last nine weeks, thanks to the necessary restrictions put in place by governments across the UK. So much for “all in this together”.
Of course, Mr Cummings is not the first to be caught apparently ignoring the advice of the government of which he is a part. Just ask Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood. In that case, the First Minister, like Boris Johnson, initially sought to stand by her adviser, before finally recognising that position was untenable.
It was untenable principally because of the threat to the government’s credibility in conveying a ‘stay home’ message to the public. Where it appears there is one set of rules for those in authority, and another for everyone else, public confidence and compliance inevitably suffer.
That is why it is so regrettable that NHS Orkney’s Chief Executive Designate, Iain Stewart has chosen to make a weekly commute from the family home in the Black Isle to Orkney. His personal circumstances offer a degree of mitigation, and he certainly qualifies as an ‘essential’ worker. Mr Stewart has also highlighted the importance of safeguarding the mental wellbeing of health and care workers by ensuring they have time with family.
There is no doubt, however, that these revelations have surprised and angered many people in Orkney, who question the need for such travel and the example it sets. For them, the risk is that Mr Stewart’s actions colour the way they now view the advice issued by NHS Orkney going forward. That is an obvious concern.
Meantime, I suspect Mary Brown will not be happy with me spoiling a perfectly good column about her 90th birthday with all this talk of Dominic Cummings et al. So, in an attempt to protect my invitation to Matchmakers in due course, let me conclude by wishing Mary a very happy, belated birthday.