by Sonia Sodha
The angriest I’ve felt at the government’s handling of the pandemic was watching Together, the BBC drama starring Sharon Hogan and James McAvoy, about a couple negotiating Covid and lockdown. Watching both characters live through the first year of the pandemic unleashed a squall of unprocessed emotions I didn’t realise were there, as we saw the weeks pass while the death toll ticked up. The rawest moment was a monologue from Hogan, months after her mother died alone in a hospital ICU after catching Covid from her care
home, with Hogan only able to talk to her in her last moments over FaceTime from her car. Hogan poses the question we’re not thinking about enough: just how did the government get away with this?
That anger has been hard to square with Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s resignation over his affair with old friend Gina Coladangelo. There were so many reasons for the resignation: the fact he assured relatives that he had thrown a “protective ring” around care homes even as older people with Covid were being discharged into them, and care home staff were spreading it further as a result of a lack of testing and PPE. Or the serious conflicts of interest that likely ensue from having appointed Coladangelo first as an unpaid adviser, then a paid non-executive director at the Department for Health, especially given that the company her brother works for has won significant contracts from the department. And then there is Hancock actually breaking the Covid regulations he is responsible for in order to conduct the affair.
The so-called vaccine bounce won’t last forever: it’s when life starts to return to something approaching normal that we will collectively process our grief and anger at the government – and that grief and anger will remanifest itself
It was the hypocrisy that got Hancock in the end, rather than his role in the care home scandal or the fact that he seems all too willing to hand out jobs to old mates and oversaw a pandemic procurement process that diverted ministerial contacts to a priority channel. The flashpoints of public anger over the last year have been his affair and Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle; those who govern us flaunting the rules they expect the rest of us to abide by. It’s why the government’s ill-judged decision to allow UK-bound business executives to bypass quarantining (if their trip is of significant economic benefit) has gone down so badly: it all adds to the sense of one rule for them, one rule for us.
Does this mean that politicians will never again be held accountable for conflicts of interest – in this, Johnson is as big a culprit as Hancock – or for the terrible Covid death toll that has resulted from the government repeatedly acting too slowly and too late? Financial sleaze appears so far to be somewhat baked into people’s expectations of this government. But on its fatal pandemic missteps, I think the government has got a lot to worry about. The so-called vaccine bounce won’t last forever: it’s when life starts to return to something approaching normal that we will collectively process our grief and anger at the government – and that grief and anger will remanifest itself. Watching Together was a poignant reminder that our rage won’t just be the product of news headlines about a public inquiry, or documentaries about what the government got wrong: it will be manifested through art and culture, through people sharing their anguish at what they lost in 2020-21 via drama, plays and writing. That’s what the government should really fear.
To be a woman means constantly looking over your shoulder if you’re walking home alone late at night and the embarrassment of being sexually objectified as an awkward teenager. But women are at their most vulnerable when trapped with men in positions of power who feel entitled to us: with an abusive partner behind closed doors, or in prison, or in a children’s home.
So my first thought when I heard of the government’s hotel quarantine policy last year – all travellers coming in from red-list countries have to pay to stay in a hotel room watched by privately-employed security guards for several days – was how risky this could be for women travelling alone or with their children. Friends I discussed this with felt exactly the same.
It was therefore shocking but not surprising when grim accounts emerged this month from women reporting being sexually harassed in Covid quarantine hotels by guards working for the company G4S. People quarantining are only allowed out of the rooms once a day for exercise, accompanied by a security guard. Women have described guards sexually harassing them in hotel lifts and barging uninvited
into hotel rooms, leaving them petrified that the guards – who have keys to all hotel rooms – will come into their rooms at night.
I doubt these risks – and how to prevent them – would have occurred to the all-male group of ministers who took key decisions in the early part of this pandemic. The last year of lockdowns has disproportionately impacted on women’s professional and domestic lives, which the government has done virtually nothing to mitigate. The dangers that quarantine hotels pose to women is yet another example of how a lack of gender diversity in pandemic policymaking has jeopardised women’s safety and wellbeing.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4