Jim Shannon’s emotional unravelling in the House of Commons as he told how his mother-in-law had died alone from Covid made for moving and uncomfortable viewing.
His stricken face was beamed around the world, a potent symbol of the betrayal felt by many.
As he called for a “full and complete disclosure” of the investigation into the Downing Street drinks party, his tears and faltering voice made it patently obvious that this was a man undone by grief, trying to process the harrowing circumstances in which his family had lost a much loved member.
Even now the idea that people were not allowed to sit by the bedside of dying loved ones is deeply distressing. The instinct of every human heart is to be there to the very end. But many accepted they could not do so, that it was a necessary cruelty.
Discovering that while they were abiding by those rules, others at the centre of government were flouting them at a Bring Your Own Bottle bash in Number 10 must be devastating.
Mr Shannon is not alone in that raw trauma. As he pointed out, Northern Ireland has now passed the grim statistic of 3,000 deaths from Covid, a figure resonant with the carnage of the Troubles. Nationally that figure is well above 150,000.
It has to be said there will also be some of those bereaved here who will deeply empathise with Mr Shannon’s enduring anguish but will also have been struck by certain ironies.
He belongs to a party which has among its elected representatives some of the most determined anti-restriction voices there are.
People will have pondered what kind of conversations, if any, he had with, for example, Sammy Wilson, a vocal lockdown critic whose response to further restrictions weeks ago was a mocking “hark the herald angels ping” tweet. Was Mr Shannon hurt by it?
They might also recall that Mr Shannon himself, accompanied by Mr Wilson, disregarded the Speaker’s strong urging not to attend the Commons in person almost exactly a year ago, and physically travelled to Parliament. Back then Mr
Wilson declared that he was “more in danger of being killed on my motorbike than I am of being affected by this virus”.
But the varying approaches within the DUP to Covid only mirror the general public’s confusion. The prevailing narrative is that the pandemic is almost over; that Omicron is “mild” – a word fast losing its meaning; and that we have to “learn to live with Covid”. It’s suggested the virus is becoming like the flu.
Yet most of us have now had at least three injections. Many have had the flu jab too. Another Covid jab may be on the horizon. Since just before Christmas, infection numbers have risen so high so quickly that the Government has recommended we should not get tested in the previous manner.
One effect has been to reduce the number of cases being registered. Either that or Northern Ireland has witnessed a literal miracle since the New Year.
Grievously, the miracle hasn’t extended to mortality. Thursday’s tally of 14 dead was the highest registered in a single day since February 2021. It was a sobering statistic and the jury is still very much out on Omicron and how our administration has handled the pandemic here.
I keep quoting that for much of June 2021, nobody was in intensive care, nobody was on a ventilator, nobody died. Then our society decided that wasn’t the way forward.
Like thousands of others with elderly or vulnerable relatives, or who are vulnerable themselves, I tuned in to Nolan’s interview with Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride on Monday for clarity amid the swathes of mixed messages from London and elsewhere.
With all respect to Sir Michael, his answer to Nolan’s query if it was safe for his 80-year-old mum to go shopping left me none the wiser. There was no reason Big Audrey couldn’t go shopping if she took appropriate precautions and had received her vaccine and booster; but people should reduce contacts to the ones that matter – and that other people perhaps less at risk should respect other people.
Is going shopping if someone else can do it for you really reducing contacts to ones that matter? What are the chances of everyone else respecting vulnerable people?
It’s seems that we’re being encouraged to interpret “living with Covid” our own way. Suddenly no more talk about passports. Still no air filters in our schools. Still no report from the Covid Task Force on how to police mask-wearing.
Still no action on health workers who are treating Covid patients in hospitals and homes while unvaccinated. Novak Djokovic should retrain and roll up to the Belfast Trust for a job when his backhand packs in.
All this mish-mash makes revelations of “work meetings” in Downing Street – and now leaving dos on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral – all the more offensive and ill-judged, giving ammo to conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Boris Johnson rightly apologised and left the investigation in the hands of Sue Gray.
There may be electoral consequences, but it’s a long way to the next poll, and those predicting his imminent demise are deluded. The Tories sit on a vast majority in the Commons, are far from the point of slaying the Golden Goose and won’t be tempted until some other proven goose comes along to help secure their seats in the former Labour heartlands.
An unnerving thing happened this week. For months we’ve been numbed by the drip feed of anonymous Covid statistics but the party revelations prompted many to put faces to the dead, to tell their stories.
Interviewed later, Jim Shannon told how his mother-in-law Jemima had multiple health problems so “the Covid was enough to take her”. She went into the Ulster Hospital on Monday and died five days later. “We couldn’t hold her hand,” he recalled. “We couldn’t tell her we loved her. We couldn’t tell her how much we would miss her.”
If the past few days have proved a kind of catharsis for Mr Shannon and others, that will be something.
Meanwhile, the rest of us just struggle along amid confusion, claim and counter claim, and an increasing sense that anyone still cautious, still worried, still fearful for loved ones, still reluctant about schools and churches and pubs is simply holding sensible people back from having a normal life.
I’d love to know where these sensible people are finding normality now. Because I haven’t seen it.