‘ALONGSIDE more testing, more ventilators and more protective equipment, there’s another weapon Britain needs in the fight against Covid-19: an effective opposition.”

So began an editorial in yesterday’s London Evening Standard which concluded that Keir Starmer’s likely election as Labour leader on Sunday will be a very good thing. A bit unexpected from a paper edited by one George Osborne.

Passing over the possibility that backing from the architect of austerity is about as useful for Starmer as that un-socialist-sounding knighthood, the paper is fulsome in its praise;

“Sir Keir looks, talks and acts like a potential premier. He has formidable experience as a former director of public prosecutions. His forensic questioning in Parliament opens the door to proper scrutiny of government. That’s why Starmer is our choice to become the Leader of the Opposition – because Britain desperately needs one.”

All pettiness aside, there’s really no arguing with that.

For long enough, the SNP, with a tiny fraction of Labour’s numbers and resources, have been the real activists in the Commons.

But actually, with Parliament suspended, emergency powers driving society and an economy in lockdown, the public has become dependent on an entirely different type of opposition to keep things right.

Step forward the professionals.

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At long last the folk with clout, degrees, promoted positions, relatively high pay, secure jobs and an instinct to avoid public confrontation at all costs, have come out fighting – and they may be more likely to keep a hapless UK Government from endangering more lives than any opposition MP.

Doctors, surgeons and hospital managers have been on TV nightly to reality proof and even flatly contradict assurances from the UK Government and NHS employers about the supply of ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) and their safety going to work.

As a result, hospital doctors in England have been gagged from speaking to journalists, with some claiming managers have threatened their careers. NHS England has taken over media operations for many hospitals and staff to ensure the public receive “clear and consistent information”. Aye right.

One English doctor was told: “If we hear of these concerns going outside these four walls, your career and your position here will not be tenable.”

That’s the kind of pressure faced by casual, contract and low-paid staff for years. But now senior, salaried professionals are feeling the heat too. And simply ignoring it.

They risk losing their jobs. But they’ve already lost something more important – the slightly remote, disconnected and even lofty stance the word “professional” once guaranteed.

No more.

Rocking the boat used to be the preserve of big Labour-supporting trade unions. But now the professional associations, the royal colleges and controversy-averse, status-quo supporting sectors like manufacturers and academics have come off the fence.

Take Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, which represents all NHS trusts in England. Hardly the most radical organisation. Over the weekend, they organised the first tests on health workers and found what they expected – just a small proportion of those in isolation are Covid-19 positive, meaning thousands of NHS doctors and nurses are stuck at home for no reason as the crisis hits its peak.

This revelation forced Health Secretary Matt Hancock to urge hospitals to use all spare testing capacity to get NHS staff back to work. A bit of a result.

Respected senior academics also joined the fray, openly suggesting that the rigid approach of Public Health England (PHE) might be part of the problem. Professor Matthew Freeman, of Oxford University’s Dunn School of Pathology, told the newspapers that testing machines are lying dormant in research institutions across the country because of PHE’s strict regime: “We have another 118 machines that can broadly do the same job. They could be adapted easily.”

And there’s more.

Julian Peto, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, took to the airwaves of Radio 4 on Tuesday night to question Michael Gove’s assertion that mass testing would have to wait for new supplies of chemical reagent. “You don’t have to get them from a perfectly validated big pharma source,” he told The World Tonight. “You ought to put out a call out to all British biotech companies saying, ‘If you can make this stuff, we’ll buy it’. They are fairly standard reagents.”

Then the manufacturers themselves weighed in, opting not to deliver the usual canny business line of “no comment”. The far from revolutionary Chemical Industry Association insisted that chemical reagents “are being manufactured and delivered to the NHS”, and one of the Government’s own scientific advisers, Peter Openshaw from Imperial College London openly questioned Gove’s claim of a shortage. “I must say I wasn’t aware of this shortage until it was announced today. I suppose it must be true if it was announced in the press conference, but ... ”


How can the public and politicians know what’s true, what’s evasion and what’s a downright lie within tightly managed service systems like the NHS? And how far can even the best briefed journalists go with just one question and no comeback at those stilted, pointless, nightly UK Government press conferences?

That’s why the onward march of the experts is so important. Professionals normally wary of the media limelight are putting their reputations on the line to cut through mistruths and half-truths from officialdom. It is as unusual as it is refreshing.

In Scotland, an outcry from the normally discreet legal profession prompted a swift about-turn by Humza Yousaf on the suspension of jury trials. Normally, most lawyers and advocates won’t break cover to take on the Government – but these are not normal times.

Our news programmes are now animated with accurate, straight-talking, knowledgeable and committed frontline professionals – contrasting starkly with the familiar placeholders and politicians who were never pressed too hard by their gentlemanly broadcasting chums. Even Piers Morgan is now turning the screw on his erstwhile pals.

Ultra cautious, publicity-shy professionals in childcare, education, social work and healthcare are following suit.

OF course, not all professionals are speaking out. The main exception appears to be in the banking sector – yet again. If, as reported, small businesses are going down the tubes right now, because of overly stringent terms laid down by banks we bailed out, then it’s time for bank staff to boldly go where the surgeons, academics and government advisors have gone already – and speak out.

Banks should be processing loans to save businesses now, with no catches, funny business or tricks. If they are ducking this responsibility yet again, society needs whistleblowers to act. Contact MPs and MSPs – name and shame them, it’s vital not to keep quiet.

So, actually Sir Keir Starmer does have a tough act to follow if he takes over, as expected. Not Jeremy Corbyn but the battalion of outspoken people who’ve thrown caution to the wind and are fearlessly holding Boris Johnson’s Government to account every waking day.

This isn’t pointless rocking the boat. This is scrutiny no opposition party can provide.

So, here’s a message from a grateful public.

When this is all over, don’t stop.

Don’t retreat back into no comment.

Don’t leave the public guessing where the truth lies.

Don’t be passive when systems are evidently unfit for purpose.



Stay engaged.

You may never get a round of applause on doorsteps at 8pm.

But the public appreciates your new-found outspokenness.

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