Boris is out of intensive care. While he is not entirely out of danger, the news does imply that the prime ministerial patient is on the mend. Like the country, we must hope that he is entering the recovery phase. For this happy turn of events, we must thank the incredible team at St Thomas’s, while not forgetting the divine mercy without which all human efforts are in vain.
Lost as we are in the labyrinthine complexities of this seemingly interminable epidemiological emergency, it is easy to forget that this is the holiest time of the year for both Christians and Jews. Though Passover and Easter are very different, both are celebrations of survival in adversity.
Yet there would be no Passover without Pharoah, no Easter without Good Friday. By the time this pandemic has passed, not everyone will have survived. Coronavirus confronts us with the threat of death at its most terrifying. Life — each and every life — suddenly seems more precious than ever before. This is a good thing, but it raises the question: if we are fortunate enough to survive, what do we do with the rest of our lives?
The experience of living with this existential threat has changed us, individually and as a society, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. We have been forced to raise our sights, to reflect on the meaning of life, as never before. In the valley of death, ordinary things become extraordinary.
Take, for example, the weekly Clap for the NHS. This improvised ritual of applauding our heroic medics has transformed the mere act of clapping into a public gesture of gratitude; and, because it is public, performing it has obliged us to look our neighbours in the eye. Putting our hands together has taken on an unprecedented sociological, even anthropological significance.
Or consider the act of volunteering. All kinds of people volunteer to do all sorts of things all the time and we think very little of it. Now, the very act of volunteering has acquired a symbolic as well as practical meaning. Not only the vital work of those who have answered the call to help the NHS, but countless other unrecorded deeds of public service or simple kindness by millions of people — it all adds up to a gigantic act of solidarity with those who are suffering and dying. We do not all have the skills to heal the sick, but we can all make a difference to someone — even if we simply stay at home this weekend. As many have pointed out, saving lives has never been easier; but what this signifies is that each of us has an impact, for good or ill, on the rest, whether we are aware of it or not. We all have a chance to be one another’s saviours now. But no politician or police officer can make us do so.
A fortnight ago, before he went into hospital, Boris Johnson issued a video message in which he said: “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.” This remark was immediately over-interpreted to be a deliberate “trashing” of Margaret Thatcher’s catchphrase: “There is no such thing as society.” In reality, there is no contradiction between the instincts of Boris Johnson and Lady Thatcher, whom he has always admired, even hero-worshipped. In the years that I worked with him at the Telegraph, he never once spoke of her except with respect. He was right to do so then and, I am sure, would do so now.
Her catchphrase is actually a paraphrase. What the Iron Lady told Woman’s Own was: “They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour.” In another interview, she explained that she had been brought up to believe: “You do not blame society. Society is not anyone. You are personally responsible.”
Indeed, the coronavirus crisis has reminded us of the vital importance of personal responsibility, just as it has reassured us that we are not alone, that we are social and political animals, with duties as well as rights. When Rishi Sunak offers to bail out businesses and protect jobs, he knows — even if he does not say so — that, as Mrs Thatcher also said, “there is no public money, there is only taxpayers’ money”. The pandemic has already cost the world trillions and we still don’t know what the final bill will be.
One thing we do know, though. During this trial by ordeal, when the churches and synagogues are closed, this Eastertide when Christians must go without the Sacraments, this Passover when many Jews will go without joining family at the Seder meal, we shall need one another more than ever before and never again take life for granted. Perhaps all of us, whether we are Jewish or not, could echo the Seder prayer. It begins by blessing the Lord, “who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Amen.