AS THE Queen sat in the palace in her 70th year on the throne, she cast her eye across all corners of her kingdom to consider on whom she would bestow an honour.

As her attention focused on faraway Belfast, she turned to her courtier and said: “That physician McBride, who has served my Government well, should become a knight of the realm.”

“Henceforth,” said the noble Queen, “he shall be known as Sir Michael, and shall be held in high esteem by all the minions of my health service who risked their lives in the service of the common people in the great pandemic.”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the courtier, “that will put him on a par with the other knight of that city, Sir Van the Man of Cyprus Avenue.”

“Oh,” said the Queen, “is he not the minstrel whose job it was to distract my subjects from their woes, but has instead become the court jester?”

“That is he, ma’am, and he has an ally in a member of your Parliament known as Junior, the sorcerer,” replied the weary courtier, who helpfully suggested that Her Majesty should banish Ian og to exile in The Maldives.

“But who would pay for that?” asked the Queen. “No – off with his head!”

“I’m afraid, your Majesty, Junior lost his head a long time ago,” said the courtier.

“And, er, if we make the physician Sir Michael of Lockdown, the wicked seditious journalist may ask questions.”

“Instruct my Government not to answer them,” insisted the Queen.

Now, this IS parody.

It all sounds like a fairytale – a Grimm one, perhaps – and we all know that this isn’t the way honours in the British system are given out.

The Queen may sign off on them, but the awards are decided by a Cabinet Office Secretariat in a system heavily influenced by senior civil servants. And the establishment often looks after its own.

While many of us consider the system to be anachronistic and a throwback to a time of outdated empire, we should not insult the many people honoured for their fine efforts in a range of ways in serving the community.

But there is some discomfit in people in public office being rewarded by their peers for doing their well-paid jobs.

This is not an article about the honours system.

I am not even querying whether the Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride, deserves a knighthood or not; though I certainly have a view on that. Rather, I am querying the timing of it.

We’ve been told that any examination of how the authorities handled the pandemic should wait while we concentrate on dealing with it, and consideration of lessons learned by a House of Commons select committee is taking time.

Yet, someone, somewhere has decided that the Chief Medical Officer has done a wonderful job, no?

It shows, does it not, the arrogance of unaccountability which has resulted in a crisis in our NHS, and not just because of the pandemic.

In fact, it’s a form of subtle gaslighting ... the establishment throwing a ring of support around a key figure in the handling of the pandemic makes the already difficult task of asking tough questions even more uncomfortable.

And, in fact, the other side of the coin is that the bizarre behaviour of Van Morrison and Ian Paisley Jnr only serves to make people think twice about challenging the official narrative for fear of being aligned with those mavericks; as does the awful abuse of BBC journalist Nick Watt by anti-lockdown thugs.

Yet, many people have genuine questions and concerns about the way this pandemic has been handled. Yes, we fully understand that Covid provided an unprecedented situation which would have challenged anyone in power; and we also fully understand that measures had to be taken to support the NHS in a time of crisis.

But while the Prime Minister’s former advisor, Dominic Cummings, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, his evidence to MPs on the select committee opened a can of worms with his explosive criticism of the British Government’s response.

Notably, he said the claim that a “protective shield” had been put around care homes was “complete nonsense” and he bluntly said: “We sent people with Covid back to care homes.”

Cummings’s comment that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die” was particularly chilling, even more so for us as the authorities in Northern Ireland engaged in a response which was inextricably linked to that of Westminster.

The Stormont response from early last year was, like Westminster’s, too slow, followed by hokey-cokey lockdown, disastrous handling of care homes, the cooping up of our children without apparent evidence of it being necessary, and generally following a policy of lockdown above all at whatever cost has resulted in us storing up mental and physical health problems for society.

Yet a complete lack of openness and transparency means that we never get disclosure of the scientific advice which has led to this policy.

In a democracy, there should be a partnership between the public and the Government, but the arrogance displayed here is disgracefully patronising towards the people who public servants are supposed to be, well, serving.

If we do get to the point of a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Northern Ireland, has a signal already been sent out that Sir Michael, a knight of the realm, is untouchable?

Already, faith in public inquiries has been dented with the response by officialdom to the O’Hara inquiry into the deaths in Northern Ireland hospitals of five children.

One of them, little Raychel Ferguson from Derry, died 20 years ago this week; another, Claire Roberts, died in 1996, yet her family are still campaigning despite Mr. O’Hara referring to a “cover-up”.

Mr. McBride couldn’t contain his pride at being awarded a knighthood and revealed he shed tears when he was told about it.

We don’t know if anyone in health service management shed any tears for Claire or the other children.

Mr. Justice O’Hara started his inquiry in in 2004 and reported in 2018; 14 years work at an estimated £15 million to produce a report which was extremely critical of health service management, and which made 96 recommendations including a duty of candour law.

To date, no accountability for wrongdoing and little action, save a complicated process of consultation on duty of candour.

After the publication of the O’Hara report three years ago, I wrote an article on website and said: “It remains to be seen if the harsh words for those at the very top of our health service will result in a change of the culture of secrecy and disrespect shown to the very people they are responsible for looking after.”

Last week, the Irish News journalist Seanin Graham – who has assiduously and courageously reported on health matters here – last week tweeted in response to a reminder of Mr. O’Hara’s findings on Claire Roberts by her family: “Extraordinary ... knowing the horrors of Muckamore and other scandals were coming down the line. Some rotten culture at play. Why do these failings keep happening in NI and what does it say about health service leadership over the past 20 years?”

It’s a leadership, of course, that has left us with the worst waiting lists in the UK, with some patients waiting up to seven years for their first consultant appointment, and people living in pain for years commonplace.

The way our health service is managed is shameful, and nobody is accountable.

The Department of Health’s failings are symptomatic of the way we are governed here, and with Stormont facing another crisis, it may well be that our hopes of “we deserve better” are forlorn.

As Stephen Sondheim wrote: “Send in the clowns; Don’t bother, they’re here.”