Just in Time
A sketch for three players
An office at the Ministry. DIGBY, the SECRETARY OF STATE’s aide, is sitting behind a desk, working at an open laptop. DIGBY is addressed as Ms. DIGBY in the presence of others, and privately, as ‘Eleanor’. She clicks onto a website, and a male, American, announcer’s voice comes through.
ANNOUNCER Welcome to Free Frank Radio! It’s a quarter to three, and we’re all in the place – playing Frank – all Frank, and only Frank; Ol’ Blue Eyes, all the time.
(Music: Frank Sinatra and big band performing Just in Time.)
SINATRA’S VOICE “No more doubt or fear, I’ve found my way –
(The SECRETARY OF STATE enters – male, public school, Oxbridge; the usual sort)
SECRETARY OF STATE Ahem?
DIGBY (lowering volume) Secretary of State, I’m sorry, I’ll switch it off-
SECRETARY OF STATE (jovial) No, no! Leave it on, Eleanor. Brightens up the place.
DIGBY Dr. Farrell is waiting outside.
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh. Does he have an appointment? Is he scheduled?
DIGBY No sir.
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh, alright.
(He gestures, and DIGBY switches off the music)
SECRETARY OF STATE What does he want?
DIGBY He didn’t say, only that it was urgent.
SECRETARY OF STATE Everything’s urgent to those people.
(As the SECRETARY OF STATE hums, ‘Just in Time’, DIGBY opens the door.)
DIGBY Dr. Farrell, the Secretary of State will see you now.
(Farrell enters- a tired-looking man in a lab coat.)
SECRETARY OF STATE Good to see you, Farrell. How are the family?
FARRELL Good morning, Secretary of State. They’re in quarantine.
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh. Right. Needs must, eh? I’d invite you into my office, but we’re frightfully busy at the moment, as I’m sure you can appreciate.
(Farrell glances around at the pall of activity.)
SECRETARY OF STATE Now then. What have you got for us today?
FARRELL Well, sir, I’ve worked it out here-
(He produces a crumpled serviette.)
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh?
FARRELL Yes, I’d like you to have a look.
(He spreads the serviette on the desktop.)
SECRETARY OF STATE (Looking down; slowly-) I see. Mnh-hmn. (pause) What does it all mean?
(Farrell takes out his phone)
FARRELL Well, the Ministry released this data - in your tweet, here …
SECRETARY OF STATE I can’t read rich detail on a small screen. Ms. Digby …
(DIGBY displays the data on the laptop)
FARRELL There- see- the rate of increase- charts and graphs.
SECRETARY OF STATE Yes. Who chose the colours? (With a reserved smile DIGBY takes personal credit) Well done, Ms Digby.
FARRELL But the thing is, reports coming in show there are far more cases of contagion than are included in this announcement.
DIGBY How do you know that?
FARRELL (ignoring the interruption) And the projections you have here don’t come close to reflecting the levels we expect in the weeks ahead, or the resources that will be needed. We’ve seen this very clearly.
SECRETARY OF STATE We? Who’s “we”?
FARRELL The Scientific Advisory Department. You appointed us.
DIGBY And you’re saying there’s a discrepancy between the government’s figures and this-
(DIGBY holds up the crumpled serviette with a show of distaste)
FARRELL Those are my calculations.
DIGBY On the back of a serviette.
FARRELL I thought you should be told at once, Secretary of State.
SECRETARY OF STATE (points again at a detail on the serviette) Look, Doctor, you seem to be suggesting- your little graph here- I mean, that’s not blueberry jam, is it?
FARRELL No, it’s not.
SECRETARY OF STATE Well, the arrow is pointing to an almost vertical position.
FARRELL Yes, sir.
SECRETARY OF STATE Are you telling me that transmission of the virus is out of control?
FARRELL Very nearly, sir.
SECRETARY OF STATE Has the Prime Minister said that?
FARRELL No. So, there’s a risk that official data could be construed as dangerously misleading.
SECRETARY OF STATE I see. Let me explain something to you, Doctor. Government, such as it is, is largely a matter of scheduling. We plan according to immediate needs, and our watchword – our guiding principle – is flexibility. We’re not locked into some long-term policy, so, when circumstances change, we’re nimble – ready to respond. To that end, it’s our job, all of us, to keep supplies, services, what have you, moving along at a proper rate – going forward, as it were – with the aim of supplementing and maintaining existing levels.
FARRELL But the question is one of capacity-
SECRETARY OF STATE There is no question of a failure of capacity. How could there be, when we’ve been operating for years with the greatest success at a capacity of 98%? You talk as though we’re depleted – empty – when the truth is there’s no slack whatever. We’re absolutely full up to the brim. Now, returning to my point- everything has to move along according to schedule. Not too slow – or you run out of material. But crucially, not too fast, lest we create bottlenecks, oversupply, useless accumulation, all of which amount to a drain on the taxpayer. So, the goal is to keep it all ticking over in a well-ordered fashion.
FARRELL In an emergency?
SECRETARY OF STATE There’s no fundamental difference. We’ve got both hands on this thing and we’ve learned how to operate the controls.
FARRELL (incredulous) Of a pandemic.
SECRETARY OF STATE (becoming exasperated) Oh, for heaven’s sake, call it what you will. The point is, to manage the affair with a minimum of disruption, waste and expenditure. We’ve already got the disruption. So, let’s concentrate on the other two. Good God, look what it’s doing to the economy- isn’t that bad enough? The Ministry’s figures, which you claim are inadequate, out of date - I’m not sure I understand why – illustrate explicitly the urgent need to balance accounts, to forge a correspondence between infection rates and our beloved national health system’s ability to react. And that, I assure you, is what we are labouring night and day to produce.
FARRELL Well, it seems to me, and the advisory group, that there’s been little or no planning.
(DIGBY and the SECRETARY OF STATE share a hearty laugh.)
SECRETARY OF STATE My dear fellow, you couldn’t be more wrong. Everything is planned down to the minutest detail. Nothing has been left to chance. You’ve no doubt heard the expression, “So-and-So made the trains run on time.”
FARRELL (confused) Ye-es.
SECRETARY OF STATE The same principle applies. These figures- our figures- form an integral component of our overall strategy, in conjunction with our friends-
FARRELL Our friends?
SECRETARY OF STATE Turn on the television, man- pick up a newspaper-
FARRELL I’ve been preoccupied.
SECRETARY OF STATE Open yourself up to the world, Doctor. We are in the process of harnessing the power of this thing-
FARRELL The pandemic?
SECRETARY OF STATE (sighs) That word again.
DIGBY What the Secretary of State is saying, with permission, Secretary of State, is that we are devoting all our efforts to making this virus- and it is a virus, no one here disputes that- conform to the same strictures we in the Department apply to any untoward event. We are bringing it under control. Our figures demonstrate as much. On the one hand, you have brought us this cocktail napkin bearing an enigmatic set of numerals, one could almost call them “runes”, scrawled in biro. Whereas the Department has put forward a clear, well-constructed, and - if I may say – visually attractive, collection of graphs, pie charts and reassuring forecasts which the public can digest at a glance.
FARRELL There are catastrophic shortages in supplies of ventilators, testing kits, surgical gowns. Beds.
SECRETARY OF STATE Those are not shortages. They’re merely temporary imbalances. Our job is to bring them into agreement with the general picture. And let’s not forget all the people who’ve recovered - possibly even better now than they were before this business started- thanks to the tremendous contribution of our indefatigable army of dedicated health care workers. Is there any reference to them in your calculations?
FARRELL Not directly, no.
SECRETARY OF STATE I suspected as much. As I pointed out to you, the NHS under our stewardship has operated flat out at 98% capacity for a decade. That’s a proven system with no fat – lean, agile, alert, responsive to the slightest fluctuation.
FARRELL But not to an emergency. Now, if I may return to my point, none of the figures in today’s press release-
SECRETARY OF STATE Part of the comprehensive plan. All things arrive, and all things depart, precisely on time. Including today’s announcement.
DIGBY Thank you, Secretary of State.
SECRETARY OF STATE Not at all, Ms. Digby – well deserved. (to Farrell-) But if we were to release your figures- all of this barrelling down on us- (waves the serviette) it would throw the entire project out of kilter.
FARRELL Project, sir?
SECRETARY OF STATE Imagine- more trains arriving than a station could accommodate. Or, all of them running ahead of schedule. Or behind. Chaos! This government is managing this unfortunate sequence of events with a view to reconciling levels of contagion with available levels of treatment. Rather like a 21st century matchmaker. So, when people say we haven’t planned for all of this-
DIGBY They couldn’t be more wrong.
FARRELL (defeated at last, dazed) Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything more I can say.
SECRETARY OF STATE (brightly) Capital! I’m glad you feel that way. You know, Dr. Farrell, we’re all counting on you. No good lining up against one another. And no tittle-tattle to the press.
FARRELL I have a lot of work -
(The SECRETARY OF STATE smoothly snags the serviette from Farrell’s hand.)
SECRETARY OF STATE We’ll just hang onto this. Future reference. Never can tell. And please, take the afternoon off. I insist. Must look after our experts. Can’t afford to lose you.
FARRELL (numb) Thank you, Secretary of State.
SECRETARY OF STATE (cheerily) Good- bye.
DIGBY Goodbye, Doctor.
(Farrell leaves, limp and crestfallen)
SECRETARY OF STATE (pause) Farrell. What sort of name is that?
DIGBY Irish, sir.
SECRETARY OF STATE Aah. (longer pause, brightly) I say, Eleanor, do put that music on again, the station you had.
DIGBY Of course, sir.
(The room is filled with the crass opening strains of New York, New York)
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh. What happened to the other song?
DIGBY It’s on rotation. Don’t worry, sir, it will come around again.
SECRETARY OF STATE Oh. Good. I rather enjoyed that tune. (Croons, ‘No more doubt or fear, I’ve found my way …’)
SINATRA’S VOICE Start spreadin’ the news …
Tom Hall lives in Dublin. He is a playwright, whose Racoon has toured internationally, and was seen at Liverpool Irish Festival (2008).