Whose heart would not swell with pride at the 450,000 people who have volunteered their time, their energy and to a degree their safety, by signing up to become NHS volunteers. There is just something very British about it. We are not going to be cowed by this monster. We will all do our little bit- whether driving medicines for patients, phoning up the lonely or vulnerable, or helping in a thousand little ways- we will beat this great black vulture-like vampire which is hovering over us. Philippa and I have signed up, although I think she will be of more use than me. Having seen our great NHS at first hand last week, when I must have been one of the very last to squeak in with an ‘elective’ hip operation in Bath, I have seen first-hand what a superb Health Service we have. What dedication our NHS people have; what skills, what scientific and medical knowledge; and what superb medicines and equipment. The NHS is the finest healthcare system in the World, and we will not allow it to be overwhelmed in the way which is threatened in the next week or two.
I am recuperating (and not doing my exercises as well as I ought), and who would not recognise the attractions of a Cotswold farmhouse in the Spring sunshine as a great place to self-isolate over the Easter Recess? But we won’t be lounging around. I was on my feet (sort of) the morning after the operation. I have a fully operational office next door to my house, from where I am flat out dealing with Coronavirus-related issues and problems. If a bloke with a dodgy but recently mended hip is any use to the NHS volunteers, then I hope they will make maximum use of us.
Coronavirus is producing a range of symptomatic human reactions, ranging from those who think ‘it’s all a load of tosh’, through the conspiracy theorists who ascribe it to aggressive national attack from China, to the engineers who rejoice in proposing a range of initiatives and solutions, very few of which are workable; to those who demand extreme and calamitous action from the authorities. (‘Any group larger than two caught sunbathing will get a mandatory 20 years hard labour’ – you know the kind of thing I mean) There are those -rightly- very concerned about our front-line staff, about Protective Equipment; there are the outraged, the miserable, the Dunkirk spirited. But the only ones who really count are those ready to volunteer, who put their own well-being aside in favour of caring for the old or infirm.
All of those reactions will be amplified and exaggerated over the next three weeks or so as the virus moves to its fatal crisis point, and as all sorts of people forced into close proximity with one another come to realise how hard it all is. Children will be finding it all quite amusing this week- in a few weeks’ time, they will be going ‘stir crazy’; their parents will be tearing their hair out. People are quite rightly terrified about the economic consequences for them and their families; we are all facing an unknown future with a mix of trepidation, resignation, perturbation and irritation. And that will only get worse.
We will start to hear from the catastrophic gloomsayers, those predicting cataclysm, Armageddon and the end of the World. The moment that we do start to hear from them is precisely the moment at which things will turn for the better. We have been here before. The Black Death in 1348 caused at least 50% mortality, and led to widespread poverty, starvation and civic unrest culminating in the Peasants Revolt of 1381.The Wars of the Roses, decline of the aristocracy and feudal England, followed. But then so did Reformation and Renaissance and the beginnings of modern times. And all of that came from the flea on the back of the black rat which came ashore in Folkestone in June 1348. “Ring a Ring of Roses, a pocket full of posies. Atishoo, atishoo; we all fall down,” is the gloomy Nursery rhyme which commemorates it. (Roses and posies refer to the buboes and rashes which were symptoms of Bubonic Plague.)
There were plenty of Millennials throughout that time predicting universal death and destruction. They will appear over the next few weeks too. Yet I am much encouraged by Mother Julian of Norwich, writing from that plague infested City: “God did not say ‘You will not be troubled; You will not be laboured; You will not be disquieted; But God said ‘You will not be overcome.’” Perhaps we should bear that in mind as we face what will without doubt be a very vexing few weeks to come- both personally and nationally. We will get through it. We must do what the Government tells us; we must self-isolate, hunker down, keep steady. We must volunteer. Do our own little bit.
Probably the most obscure figure from the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was an innkeeper in Melford Green in Suffolk, where John Wraw, the rebel, stopped off for a ‘pipe of red wine’ for which he was charged 7 marks, 3 shillings and four pence. The Innkeeper was called Enewene the Taverner, presumably because of his diminutive size. Seven centuries later we remember him just because he served a pipe of red wine to some passing revolutionaries.
The world will not end; but there may well be great changes to come, some of them (Renaissance and Reformation) perhaps greatly for the good of the world. We just need to remember three people: the flea who started it all off; Enewene the Taverner, whose name is with us 700 years later for some small bit part in history (the little things we may do and say over the next few weeks may be with us for a very long time).
But above all, remember Mother Julian of Norwich: “You will not be overcome.”
James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire
Member, Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen
Member, NATO Parliamentary Assembly
Chairman, All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Forces
Chairman, Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust
Chairman, All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions
Member, Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy
Freeman of the City of London
Younger Brother, Trinity House
Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
Patron, Operation Christmas Box
President, Chippenham Constitutional Club
Author, Poles Apart (2014); Who Takes Britain to War (2016); and Full English Brexit (2018)