Bill Paterson is an actor and commentator
As Health Secretary Matt Hancock flannelled his way through last Thursday's Question Time
on his preparations for possible massive self-isolation in the coming coronavirus emergency, the silence from the studio audience was deafening. They withheld their usual partisan cheerleading as they contemplated having more than one strain of virus to deal with in the coming weeks. The one called COVID-19, and the one called Boris Johnson's Government.
The silence was most profound during Hancock's fuzzy assurances that the panic buying of food, toilet rolls, hand gel, tinned tomatoes, etc, would be avoided by just keeping calm and carrying on. According to young Matt, that meant leaving it all to the market. More accurately, leaving it all to the supermarkets.
He was so out of his depth that the only decent thing to do was to throw him a lifeline. So here's mine...
With hand hygiene said to be a priority, he might have earned a spattering of applause if he had announced that his department was taking over the production and distribution of hospital grade hand gel. The prospect of a free pint of the stuff delivered to every doorstep could be genuinely reassuring because that's the kind of war footing that may become necessary in the next few weeks.
It was the kind of thing that the good Dr James Niven achieved in Manchester in late 1918. During the early stages of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which was to kill millions throughout the world, Manchester was fortunate in having this splendid man as it's Medical Officer of Health.
Niven, who hailed from Peterhead, realised that the only way to limit the spread of the virus in Manchester was to lock down the city by closing factories, mills, cinemas, churches and schools. No easy task in a huge industrial city dealing with thousands of troops returning from the carnage of the Great War. To do this, the municipality would have to deliver food, fuel and medical care to some of the most deprived and overcrowded areas of the city.
It was a localised form of a National Health Service 30 years before its time and Dr Niven and his team battled the vested interests of local government and business in the attempt... Not to mention the indifference of the London Government. Of course, they didn't totally succeed but it's acknowledged that the Manchester death toll from Spanish Flu was much lower than in the other large industrial centres of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
As I'm sure you've already guessed, I'll now confess a personal interest. I played Dr Niven in a compact, you could say low budget, BBC drama called Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen
, made in 2009 during the swine flu threat of that year. He has remained with me to this day and his story is an inspiring and moving one. Well worth studying in these dark times.
He doesn't appear on any tea towels celebrating great Scottish heroes, but we should still be very proud. James Niven and his colleagues were the kind of 'experts' that Michael Gove told us we had 'had enough of'. The kind of experts we will now need while our self-serving politicians face reality on all fronts.
In fact, so far the the only glimmer of light in this current crisis has been the sight of the waffling Boris Johnson flanked at press conferences by such admirable figures as Professor Chris Whitty, the Government's Chief Medical Advisor, who has more than a hint of Dr James Niven about him. It's an acceptance that it's time for the grown-ups to take over.
I know who I'll trust in the battle for the nation's health and, along with it, the health of the body politic.