Pandemic is horrendous – but we do need some relief from all the bad news

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tough new rules forcing people to stay at home. Picture: PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tough new rules forcing people to stay at home. Picture: PA Video/PA Wire - Credit: PA

I’ve been a news junkie since I was a child in the late 1960s. I think it was Apollo Eight at Christmas 1968 that got me hooked – and by the time the General Election of 1970 happened I was an 11-year-old political expert!

So it isn’t easy for me to say this, but I am beginning to think we may be in danger of suffering from news overload as the coronavirus crisis accelerates.

I’m spending this week at home not doing any work(apart from this column). The week was booked as a holiday months ago. It’s my first week off since last autumn (my week off in early December fell victim to the General Election). My wife and I had planned all kinds of spring excursions across East Anglia. Now we are left with a stroll around the local park area once a day while maintaining a two-metre distance from any dog-walkers we may see.

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As there isn’t a great deal to do I’ve been flicking around the television channels. I made a vow at the start of the week to avoid the rolling news channels – getting the news from regular bulletins and any “news specials” that may be broadcast on main channels for major events like the Prime Minister’s daily briefing.

But the daytime schedules on both BBC1 and BBC2 seem to be dominated by news specials – and it is quite difficult to find other things to watch on these channels. Schedules have been torn up and the only way of finding out what is on is looking at the website.

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Now I know that a large number of people just don’t seem to understand what is happening in this country – but I’m not sure that pushing the same message out on multiple channels will help that.

Even a news junkie like me has spent some time this week looking for other programmes from Homes Under the Hammer to Escape to the Country just to provide a bit of light relief.

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I’ve discovered a great Channel Five series about British wildlife – and I’m trying to find whether all three series of the Yorkshire Steam Railway are available on their catch-up service so I can watch them all again!

Having said that the government, broadcasters, and journalists generally do have a very difficult job at the moment to get the message across about how serious the issue is without inducing mass anxiety and panic among the population.

Nothing can diminish the damage to the world’s physical health that this ghastly pandemic is bringing – but we also have to recognise that the effects of combatting it, particularly if they go on for a long period, could be very damaging to our mental health as well.

I am sure that most people who have been following the story will have heard that the vast majority of people who suffer from coronavirus Covid-19 will have a minor or moderate illness that they will get over at home without the need for hospital treatment.

That reassurance is very important for most people. Unfortunately for a small minority it is a licence to carry on life as normal – “What’s the worse that can happen?”

That, in turn, makes it justifiable to publish stories about extremely rare cases where a younger, relatively-fit, person has died after contracting the virus – even if it does cause anxiety in a lot of people. It is a very fine line to walk and journalists are very aware of the balance that must be kept.

I fully support the government’s decision to impose the “lock-down” this week. The pictures that came in from resorts across the country at the weekend of holidaymakers queuing for fish and chips and crowding on to beaches were unacceptable.

I was not so worried about the pictures from Richmond Park in London. To me it looked as if people were keeping their distance from each other even if there were quite a lot in the shot. And if you live in a small flat in London where else are you going to go for some fresh air and exercise?

And I know that some professionals are worried about the effect of the prolonged lock-down could have on family life and the cohesion of society. It’s well known that the early weeks in January are the most popular time of the year to file for divorce after days together as a family over Christmas – so what will happen to families under strain if they are cooped up together for weeks?

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We must remember that there are two reasons for the lock-down. One is to reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment for coronavirus itself and the other is to ensure there are some hospital resources for those with other conditions: people will still need cancer care, treatment after heart attacks, and a variety of other conditions that occupy health professionals 365 days a year.

It is the strain that is being put on a health service that can never be fully resourced to deal with a once-a-century outbreak like this, however brilliantly the staff rise to the challenge, that is the major issue for society.

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