Timely Salisbury series showed ordinary people doing their best in an unprecedented situation

The BBC mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings struck a chord. Pic, BBC

By John White

I don’t own a television, and haven’t lived in a house with one since leaving the parental home way back last century.

My kids seemed to have survived this oversight in their upbringing although in high school it apparently caused some surprise among their pals.

I should add it is not all books by candlelight. We do have movie nights in winter when we watch DVD’s and now Netflix through a data projector onto a large pull-down screen.

It is almost a cinematic experience with the sound coming through my old-fashioned stereo and its big speakers on the wall.

Very occasionally though I get to hear about a television drama that sparks an interest.

Mostly they are forgotten as if they are any good, they are released on DVD or online as a mini-series, like Sherlock, produced by Skye’s own Douglas Mackinnon, and I can enjoy them at my leisure, glass and popcorn in hand while lying on a sofa.

Last week however, I heard about the BBC drama The Salisbury Poisonings, an adaptation of the real events following the attempted murder of a former Russian spy in 2018, and the ensuing public health danger.

Familiar themes

The series was timely.

There was talk of tracking and tracing, areas were locked down, and there was a possible spread of an invisible deadly nerve agent.

Containment was the key.

Viewers now have an understanding and comprehension about much of the unfolding events, that they perhaps wouldn’t have had, were it screened four months earlier.

Contamination through contact from surfaces such as light switches and work surfaces and Salisbury business owners complaining at a public meeting of a 95 per cent drop in trade due to the cordons in their streets.

Much of what happened would strike a chord with many, as would the uncertainty of it all.

I managed to watch the three episodes, albeit a few days after they were broadcast, and was struck how the story was a human one.

It was about ordinary people doing the best they could in an unprecedented situation.

It was seemingly very true to life. The screenplay was written after many interviews with the real players, who we meet briefly in a moving vignette at the end.

Public health

The main protagonist was director of public health for the local authority Tracy Daszkiewicz.

She found herself transported from doing the school run on the way to her perhaps ordinary council job, to making decisions in overflowing conference rooms with senior police officers, Porton Down chemical warfare experts and Whitehall representatives, the outcome of which could either prevent or mitigate the deaths of thousands of people.

At times Daszkiewicz sits in her car with her head on the steering wheel, fighting back the tears and trying not to be overcome by the gravity of it all.

Her agenda, quite simply was to protect the health of the people.

As lockdown begins to be eased in Scotland, we know well enough that there is a balance between lives and livelihoods, health and the economy, mental and physical well-being, and consequence for the future.

Decisions are being made daily as to how to ease the country back into a new normality in the most appropriate manner.

These decisions are beginning to be politicised, and the old adversarial ways are beginning to rear their ugly heads in the chambers of our government.

It is correct that decisions are scrutinised, and justification is asked for in public, but knee jerk criticism for political posturing is untimely, and often disingenuous.

Numbers persuasive

We are still very much in a public health crisis.

The future is unknowable, and whatever path is taken, there will be negative consequences.

It is not at all cut and dried or in any way unambiguous.

Mark Twain popularised the quote “lies, damned lies and statistics”, but numbers are persuasive.

If we are to believe the figures gleaned from the internet, England with 10 times the population has approximately 60 times the average daily new cases and hospital admissions, and 40 times the deaths.

In England, the Westminster government is handling the crisis differently, perhaps with a different agenda and a different emphasis on the balance between the health of the economy and the health of the population.

Perhaps they have different priorities, but I have medic friends who are glad they live in Scotland, and worry how things might pan out south of the border.

Lockdown couldn’t, and cannot last forever.

The new normal must include commerce which must include tourism, but when I hear tourism representatives arguing for a reduction in the distance of social distances in order to protect jobs and businesses, I wonder, how many extra deaths should we allow in order to allow a pub to open.

Collateral damage

There are always different viewpoints and it takes real wisdom to be able to consider all perspectives.

When the lobbyists and business sector leaders want relaxations to protect their interests, I hope they realise the bigger picture, and no decision which may preclude their ruin, would be taken lightly or flippantly.

The collateral damage of closed down businesses I am sure will weigh heavily on the consciousness of our political leaders.

I am reminded of a cartoon I have seen used in conflict resolution courses. Two people are looking at a number drawn on the floor from opposite angles, with the phrase “just because you are right doesn’t mean to say I am wrong”

The number is of course a 6, or is it a 9?

It is clear that the sliding and phasing of the opening of tourism and recreational facilities is to keep a slowly-slowly approach to prevent a flood of movement of people and the virus.

They could have said folk with brown eyes are allowed out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, anything to stem a possible tide.


An aspect of leadership is to be able to make difficult decisions, taking all criteria on board often in the face of criticism, trying to see the big picture in the face of uncertainty.

A change of decision, a backtrack or U turn seems to be regarded as weakness by an opposition, although I have never understood why.

Surely it shows strength of character to realise that a chosen path might not be the best, and that a different option might be better.

There has been some discussion about female leaders acting differently and perhaps more appropriately in the face of the current pandemic.

I wonder if Salisbury was lucky having a female director of health, if the poisoning drama is to be believed. Tracy Daszkiewicz acted with incredible professionalism and complete integrity, with compassion and humanity.

Political allegiances aside I believe that the same could be said of our own leader in Holyrood, a person doing an extraordinary job in an unprecedented situation.

I wonder if Nicola Sturgeon sometimes stops her car puts her head on the steering wheel and weeps at the gravity of it all.