Always Worth Saying’s Question Time Review

Question Time 19th March 2020


Matt Hancock (Conservative)
Andy Burnham (Labour)
Tom Soloman (Doctor)
Frances O’Grady (Trades Union Congress)
Angela Harnett (Chef)

Venue: Weston-super-Mare

Weston-super-Mare returns a Conservative MP, John David Penrose, who, like a very large proportion of QT panellists, was educated at private school and then Oxbridge. From there he migrated to the City and into politics. While we’re on the subject, usually four out of the five QT panellists have enjoyed a selective education. Some at the taxpayer’s expense, at grammar school, others at their parents, at a fee-paying school. Margaret Beckett, (QT 5th March, Royal Tunbridge Wells) may have gone to grammar school as Labour MPs tend to pull a trick of saying they went to comprehensives if their grammar became a comprehensive after they’d left it.

One of the few recent panellists who definitely went to a non-selective state school, albeit the very posh Harrow County School for Boys, was pink jacketed television presenter Michael Portillo (QT 20th February, Weymouth). Owing to a previous merger, it’s former pupils are known as ‘Old Gaytonians’. I make no further comment.

Because of the unprecedented times that we live in, this week’s Question Time doesn’t have an audience. Not so much a lockdown, more of a lockout. If a bus full of blue-haired, whooping, Momentum lefties stops at your local toilet roll reinforced roadblock, you know where they’ve been kicked out of. From a safe distance, through your gas mask and with a semaphore flag in each rubber-gloved hand, do the best you can to point them towards Islington.

Also during these strange times, gentlemen of a certain persuasion find, in effect, disappointingly thin emergency railway and bus timetables. Those inclined to such pursuits can, however, still derive great pleasure from online restaurant menus and, more to the point, their price lists. More to follow.

The first question, via video, there not being an audience, came from a questioner in war uniform – blue NHS ‘scrubs’. She asked about the criteria for rationing of medical equipment, as the number of coronavirus cases increases.

Matt Handcock (Conservative) told us that NHS workers always do a good job but in the near future they will have to carry out a heroic task. When will they have the right equipment? Asked Fiona Bruce (Chair). One hundred and fifty hospitals will get protective packs over this very night, replied Matt. All hospitals will get such packs by Sunday night. Matt wanted to talk about ventilators, from new manufacturers, and training up medical staff to use them.

Fiona Bruce mentioned that the EU are clubbing together to buy new ventilators. Is she still showing signs of last year’s pandemic, Remainervirus? Matt Hancock tried his best to cure her, by telling her that we are also part of the new ventilator programme.

Tom Solomon (Doctor and Professor) mentioned South East Asian ventilators and that, in Canada, there are multi-ventilators that can service up to nine people simultaneously, if each of them has a similar ventilation need. Did Fiona Bruce look a little disappointed?

Andy Burnham (Labour) mentioned his dealing with swine flu as Health Minister in 2009. Since then he has contracted forgetty disease. A symptom being, forgetting to mention that he was also in charge of the health service during the Staffordshire hospital scandal, when there were hundreds of unnecessary deaths and, it was reported at the time, patients were forced to drink out of flower vases. Burnham did remember to suggest the nationalisation of private hospitals.

Burnham also mentioned that he’d agonised during swine flu, but forgot to mention that, at the same time, he was not hesitating to turn down requests for an inquiry into the said Staffordshire scandal. Persistent, dry forgetty disease. Nasty.

Frances O’Grady (Trades Union Congress) mentioned cleaners and the other team members in the NHS, claiming they were short of soap. Are they really? The unions in manufacturing want to build ventilators but it’s not always easy.

Fiona Bruce picked a question from the virtual audience. What about equipment for care workers? It’s happening as we speak, Matt Hancock assured us. Fiona pushed him for deadlines. ‘By the end of next week’, Hancock bluffed.

Angela Harnett (Restauranteur) is famous for being under Gordon Ramsey. When she was learning to be a chef. What did you think I meant? Angela asked for facts. Excellent. A big mistake on her part, as the menus and price lists of the restaurants that she owns, can be read online. Some good ones coming up.

‘We need facts’, she repeated. Wait patiently, dear reader.

Another virtual question was posed, when will front line staff be tested? Folks can’t afford a private test, £15000 an hour Fiona Bruce reminded us.

Tom Solomon told us that it is critical to test health care workers and as many other people as possible. At the moment, the number of people who need to be tested is increasing faster than the number of test kits available. As an example, this meant that Dr Tom might have to self-isolate, un-necessarily, if he just has a sniffle rather than the actual virus.

Fiona Bruce dived in, should testing have started sooner?

Oh no, said Dr Tom, contradicting Fiona’s statement disguised as a question. We started remarkably quickly, given that we had to invent and then scale up a test for a new virus.

Francis the trade’s unionist, disagreed with the Professor. We should have planned a test for a pandemic before we knew what it was. In effect, she was telling us that we should have examined the viral code before there was a viral code to examine. You can tell she went to grammar school and Oxford.

Thunderbirds marionette lookalike Andy Burnham had convened the Greater Manchester COVID committee. He had put out a call before-hand (via flashing eyes on a big picture of himself?), in order to be able to isolate the key issues, before he set off in his rocket to Weston-super-Mare.

An anonymous health service source had called International Rescue and confided to Burnham that the government’s claim that 25,000 tests could be done in a day was impossible. Burnham cited a lack of ‘lab time’.

A theme was developing. Pin down the minister on future unpredictables, in order to catch him out later. Make no mistake, there is a brutal political game at work here, in which the BBC and Labour will try to skewer the Tories.

Matt Handcock said the new test doesn’t need any lab time. It is like a blood prick test, giving an immediate result. Thunderbird One hit the ground. A clever, bespectacled chap, in a lab coat on Burnham’s COVID Committee island, surrounded by swabs, was heard to say, ‘B, b, b, b, bugger it, Mr B, B, B, Burnham.’

Fiona Bruce asked if it would definitely work? When assured that it would, she replied through clenched teeth, that this was a brilliant step forward.

The next video question was from a small business owner struggling to complete existing contacts, with a resulting impact on cash flow, and an inability to pay his staff.

Fiona Bruce turned to Angela Hartnett and asked her, as a restaurant owner, how she was managing with such things. Now you can pass me the menus and the price lists, dear reader.

On the off-chance that places of hospitality re-open just as Aldi runs out of food, you will be able to survive by selling your remaining healthy lung to a coughing Wuhan Billionaire and putting a deposit down on one of Angela Hartnett’s meals.

As for her staff, Angela has been kind enough to put them on unpaid leave. No more £21 desserts for them. She went on to tell us that the lucky souls who work for her at the Hartnett Holder & Co restaurant (afternoon tea £47 per person), were EU citizens and she’d given them (from the bottom of her generous heart) the opportunity to go back to where they came from. I kid you not. I had to laugh.

Presumably, those who are infected and shouldn’t travel, can go on statutory sick pay of £94 a week. If they claim for a year and don’t spend a penny of it, they could just about afford a bottle of Angela’s Murano’s Restaurant’s £4500 wine. I’ll write that out in longhand, in case you’re suffering from ‘zero’ blindness disease. Angela charges four thousand five hundred pounds for a bottle of wine.

Angela told us that her employees have their bills to pay and families to support. The bill for a Murano two course a la carte lunch, with discretionary cheese, being a mere £45.

All of which makes her prices at Merchants Tavern, Shoreditch, seem somewhat suspect. A steak for only £27 and only £4 for a (Giant? Medium? Small?) side portion of chips? Has somebody spat in them? And a bit of cheese for £12. Wet market bat steak and wild diabetic frog urine cheese perhaps?

Angela said that it will be a struggle when she re-opens. There will be a cash flow problem. She appeared to lick her lips while suggesting she be allowed to sink her teeth into a cheap taxpayer-funded loan. Might one suggest that, next time you walk past one of Angela’s eateries, that smell might be the books being cooked?

Francis O’Grady told us that there was a need for certainty and detail. Some self-employment (in the restaurant trade?) is bogus in order to avoid sick pay. People can’t survive for a sustained period on benefits. Don’t just bail out the board room, suggested Francis, up the workers.

As a background to Francis, Angela kept gasping, ‘Of course’, ‘Not enough’.

Matt Hancock, wanted businesses to continue to support their staff and the government will come to the aid of the staff by aiding the businesses.

Fiona Bruce interrupted to say that Angela had had to let her staff go. No, she hasn’t Fiona. Listen very carefully. Angela has kept her staff on, but without any pay.

From the wreckage of Thunderbird One, Burnham remembered the economic crash in 2008 and the swine flu crisis in 2009. The government hasn’t given us all of the answers and was promising the least to the people who needed the most. Those people can’t follow the government advice and self-isolate, as they can’t afford to miss work. He mentioned his own little Tracy Island. North of the Tropics, it is called, ‘Manchester’. The board of trade there needed tax payer’s money to pay the staff. Memo to Manchester businesses – borrow it off the bank. Interest rates are 0.1%.

Burnham wants big, big, big government with an increase in universal credit, an alteration to job seeker’s allowance and a set of politically motivated rules.

Might your humble reviewer make a suggestion? Cut your costs to the bone. Use your savings, then extend your credit. You’ve all got credit and debit cards – the shops no longer take cash anyway. When all of this is over, pay off the debt from your new earnings. Better still, get a job with one of the giant grocers. For obvious reasons, they are recruiting.

The next question was from a young woman, on a zero-hours contract in hospitality, now workless. Sadly for the BBC’s agenda, she had no bills to pay, but others do.

Hancock was keen to keep people in work and put money into people’s pockets. The chancellor will say something tomorrow. Hundreds of billions of pounds had already been put into action, putting money into the pockets of the needy souls on the stock market and currency exchanges (he forgot to add).

Dr Tom butted in. The medical side of things has had a quick response but on the economic side, the government seemed to be making big statements but then leaving the detail yet to be filled.

Fiona Bruce claimed that other countries governments were paying 75% of wages. At this point, at least one reviewer had to shout at the telly that the government of the Soviet Union used to pay 100% of the wages and look how well that went.

The next question was from a couple in their seventies with a ninety-year-old dependant relative. They can’t get out and supermarkets and pharmacies can no longer deliver to them.

Dr Tom mentioned community groups. Younger, healthy people were volunteering, including one of his daughters. It wasn’t ideal but, in a crisis, different approaches are needed.

Back on Burham Island, Andy informed us that Gary Neville had made his hotel available to Brains. There was also a website for volunteers. Andy had been in touch with the Royal Mail and (and Burnham really did say this, I was in stitches), the Royal Mail has agreed to make home deliveries. Like in the post? Who would have thought it?

Angela made an important point, where she lives there is a Whatsapp group, where people in need can be matched up with people who can help. There is a crossroads here, fellow citizens, between self-help and the private sector and absolutely giant, authoritarian government.

Andy Burnham reminded us which side of the argument that he is on. There is a big need for extra cash flow for local councils, he told us, presumably including the one that he is the mayor of.

Francis O’Grady reminded us that these things bring out the best and worst in people. She leant forward, mentioned survival of the fittest, and recalled scenes of empty shelves and spilt soap in the supermarkets. Stuff was scattered across the floor.

£15,000 an hour Fiona Bruce’s heart bled for virtual audience member John, who couldn’t get his supermarket delivery until March 31st.

There is a silver hour, Matt Hancock informed us, down at the supermarket, for the elderly and vulnerable. Make sure you keep six feet away from everybody else in the scrum fighting over toilet rolls, in case you catch something.

Fiona Stalin told us that the government should be telling the supermarkets what to do.

Andy Burnham, give councils the ability to go to the front of the queue. On Burnham island the 09:30 bus pass limit was being waived, allowing pensioners to enter the empty streets and look at the closed shops a bit earlier. Local authority resilience had been degraded by cuts. Cuts to wages and pensions at the council? I don’t think so. Front line services have been cut to preserve public sector wages and pensions, F.A.B. Andy.

There was one last question, regarding the cancellation of school exams. All of the panellist’s hearts bled. High on pretend empathy, they were short on workable solutions. Doctor Tom came the closest, suggesting that exam students could be graded on their completed course work and that, rather than closing schools and inconveniencing key workers, it might be better to just make school voluntary.

No venue was mentioned in advance of next week’s programme. Given the strange times we live in, might it be migrating to Skype?

The final emergency announcement was the best. In deference to the needs the reviewing community, from now on Question Time will be on at 8pm, allowing a welcome opportunity to sleep through News at Ten and Newsnight.

© Always Worth Saying 2020

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