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Reviews / ‘Public health in public hands’

Our reviewer Neil Riddell was impressed by Miriam Brett’s first time appearance on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night

Thursday night's Question Time was broadcast from Edinburgh in the new socially distanced set-up. Photo: BBC

THERE’S usually not an abundance of reasons for tuning into BBC Question Time – but islanders had at least one thanks to the appearance of Bressay-raised Miriam Brett on the panel.

The 28 year old stood as the SNP’s candidate for the Northern Isles in the 2017 general election and has since cultivated a significant profile as an astute economic commentator in these fraught times.

Currently director of research and advocacy at the progressive left-wing Common Wealth think tank, earlier this week Brett featured as one of the Press & Journal’s 35 rising political stars in Scotland.

I must confess that during the Brexit years I gave up on this programme, fed up of its endless platforming of the odious Nigel Farage, the pork barrel anti-immigrant sentiments and the false British exceptionalism it continually amplified.

But Thursday night’s panel was refreshingly sensible, featuring three intelligent female panellists (Brett, SNP finance minister Kate Forbes, Labour MP Seema Malhotra) alongside SAGE committee member Mark Walport. Also appearing were Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and pro-Brexit billionaire Ian Wood.

Four of the panellists, Brett included, joined host Fiona Bruce in the Edinburgh studio and another two participated by Zoom, as did a few members of the public.

The Covid-19 version of QT mitigates against the febrile, confrontational atmosphere often created by a live studio audience.

This meant the debate largely avoided slanging matches, the odd bit of ‘mansplaining’ aside, concentrating on the inescapable matter at hand – Coronavirus and assorted lockdowns, circuit breaks, hospitality woes and declining household incomes.

Brett’s most notable contribution was an eloquent outlining of the scandal that has seen the UK Government showering private companies with lucrative contracts for crucial tasks they’re clearly incapable of fulfilling.

“We’re seeing consultants being brought in for a week that are being paid a year’s worth of nurses’ salaries,” she told BBC1 viewers.

“Firms who are looking to maximise profit and who do not have expertise in public health are being brought in to oversee how we respond to test, track and trace.

“Now that to me is an abject failure. Why should the taxes of key workers, who are trying so hard now to alleviate this crisis, line the pockets of corporations who are not experts in public health?”

Brett added that if a circuit breaker or nationwide lockdown is required, as seems increasingly likely, it should be used to “take a moment” and recognise that “public health should be in public hands”.

You certainly wouldn’t have known it was her maiden QT appearance. She acquitted herself sure-footedly throughout, using a question on the troubles faced by hospitality to highlight the glaring problem of trying to prop up an inherently flawed economic model.

Many workers are having to make do with less income but the cost of rent, bills and food is not declining. Hospitality is “very, very insecure at the best of times” for workers and the pandemic is “exposing fractures in our economy that already exist”, Brett pointed out.

When we emerge from the pandemic she wants a “new deal” rooting out precarious employment, banning zero-hours contracts and instituting a real living wage for all UK workers.

Amid screen-to-screen Covid-19 we could all have used a light-hearted coda. Instead we got a quick natter about Scottish indy on the back of a poll showing 58 per cent for Scotland going its own way. The majority is even greater among younger age groups.

Such talk mid-pandemic is “a complete irrelevance”, one audience member said. Indeed. What government would blunder ahead with nation-reshaping constitutional upheaval at a time like this, with businesses haemorrhaging jobs and craving stability? Someone should ask Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Brett, unsurprisingly, said she was “not surprised” by the growing appetite for independence following a decade of austerity.

She fears a “race to the bottom” as the UK negotiates post-Brexit trade deals and worries that the NHS will be on the table.

That prompted football linesman Ross to interject. The Tories are “absolutely categorical” that the NHS is “not up for sale”, he said with all the conviction of a dog running away from the smell of its own fart. Just like Dido Harding’s test-and-trace, and our water, electricity, trains, post office, eh Dougie?

With the hour almost up Miriam still had time for a sharp barb in Wood’s direction, referring to Scotland getting a Brexit we didn’t vote for “backed by billionaire financiers”.

Even the many islanders who are otherwise politically inclined would surely agree it was a breath of fresh air to see a native Shetlander, proudly state-educated, taking her place on a show that for too long has been the preserve of stuffy, well-connected old Etonian types. More please!

Thursday night’s Question Time programme can be watched again at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000nh7g/question-time-2020-15102020