Voices in Politics: Florence MacDonald on what we can learn from COVID-19

By Florence MacDonald |

Owen Martin/Florence MacDonald

At times of national crisis – such as WWII – it is right that members of Parliament should be seeking to work cross-party to provide the best possible leadership and care for our citizens. Political point scoring and game playing is ugly and counter-productive. But if I have one complaint of my own party, it’s that this attitude held them back from critiquing some very alarming decisions that were being made by our government in those early days of Covid-19.

In an alarming era where catch phrases and slogans seem to garner public support, we have heard far too much of the phrase ‘right decisions at the right time’ as if there was only ever one course of action; you’re either with the government, or with coronavirus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was making choices that contradicted the actions of nearly all other affected countries, the advice by WHO and leading scientists which included delaying lockdown, allowing travel to continue, and crucially, not implementing any trace testing. 

Now we find ourselves with over 30,000 deaths – the highest number of deaths in any European country and an alarmingly high death rate. It’s hard to listen to ministers claim that their ‘right decisions at the right time’ have been successful with these dire daily statistics and as Liberal Democrats, we are calling for an inquiry into the Governments handling of Covid-19. 

As I write this, a new slogan has been announced – ‘Stay Alert’. This unhelpful change has been roundly criticised, particularly by Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon who has made it clear that in Scotland, the message is still ‘Stay at Home’. I’m always interested in what’s going on in Scotland, not just because I’m half Scottish, but because as a Liberal Democrat I believe there should be more devolution and a Cornish Assembly. 

How might things be different if we had more powers here in Cornwall? During this crisis, Scotland has used its devolved powers to take greater action than the UK government in terms of their financial support for the fishing and creative industries. As a musician, I know just how much artists are struggling whilst simultaneously keeping everyone’s spirits up with a stream of free virtual entertainment. 

Meanwhile, our already struggling fishing industry is being hit harder still. The majority of fish caught is usually for export (you can guess where…) but with the closing of the hospitality sector and export markets, our small fishing fleets are now floundering. Like Scotland, we could be taking greater steps to support the communities and industries that are so important here in Cornwall if we had devolved powers. 

Despite the mistakes that have been made and in spite of the terrible losses faced by many families, there are opportunities to make positive changes. People are shopping locally, using local farms, buying local fish, walking and cycling, using footpaths that were nearly forgotten. Meetings that would normally involve a trip on a plane or train are now being held online and many of us are learning that some of our work (by no means all) can be achieved from home. 

Now is the time to push for change. And there are two main doors that as a Liberal Democrat, I believe we should be pushing, nay, kicking in. The first, is the door for a greener society. We need to capture some of these good habits by encouraging different working styles and transport systems. Introduce work from home days and hold meetings online. Whilst new footpaths and bridleways are fresh in our minds and our bike tyres are pumped, let’s install more cycling infrastructure and let’s link up our villages. 

The second door – and it’s a big one – relates to tackling inequality. The lockdown and loss of work has highlighted the inequality in job security and pay, particularly for the self-employed. In Cornwall, over 20% of our employment is made up by self-employed workers, compared to 14% in the rest of the U.K. and so for Cornwall to prosper, we need a system that will protect our self-employed workforce, whatever they face.

We need a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran has always been in favour of a UBI but now others are starting to wake up to the need for it and she is campaigning cross-party to make this happen. Whilst support packages have come into place for most people from the Government, workers have had to wait 3 months for these to take effect. How different this situation could have been with a UBI already in place!

Whatever your thoughts are on lockdown life, it seems clear to me that we are still in the midst of this crisis and the effects will be with us for many more months in one form or another. I am hugely grateful for the green spaces that are available to us here in Cornwall and the many delights that Spring brings. But I don’t think this is the last time we will be faced with a situation such as this, and I hope that, politics aside, there is space and humility enough to learn valuable lessons from our current experience.

I want to end with confessions of an average human. I forgot to clap for the NHS this week. I don’t make use of my daily exercise. I haven’t lost weight or managed to do the splits – I’ve just eaten a lot of cake. And some days, I feel a bit rubbish. You might love it, you might hate it, but whatever your response to this abnormal situation is – just give yourself a break. Ignore that facebook post of another home baked delight. You’re doing fine.

Florence MacDonald

Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle