The UK’s pandemic plight might seem hopeless. But there are some measures which could help alter its course.
One of the most frequent complaints levelled at newspaper columnists is that we snipe from the sidelines.
Usually, it’s a bit of an unfair one: sniping from the sidelines is, in fact, what columnists are paid to do. After all, no-one expects a football commentator to jump on the pitch and take a shot themselves.
The criticism does, however, have merit for any country stupid enough to put newspaper columnists in charge of their government. Unfortunately for the UK, we have done exactly that: Boris Johnson until recently was paid £5-a-word (an unimaginably high rate) for his waffle by the Telegraph, Michael Gove was a Times columnist, and even the recently-departed Dom Cummings was a onetime editor at the Spectator.
One of the many problems facing the country at the moment is that the men who run it don’t seem to have noticed they are actually doing so, even in the middle of the biggest global crisis in living memory.
Early in the crisis, as the cabinet tried to plan a sensible route out of the first lockdown – this pause is left to allow the reader a bitter “hah” – Johnson reportedly asked who was responsible for delivering that plan, seeming bewildered when then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill replied “I think it’s you, prime minister”.
Even ten months and tens of thousands of deaths into the pandemic, it is impossible to escape the same sense that Johnson remains shocked to find he’s the prime minister, with whom the buck stops. How else can you explain his interviews at the weekend, in which he said that action would need to be taken to prevent further spread of coronavirus, and which were then followed by him not actually taking any such action. At least, not until some time later.
In normal times, having a Gogglebox government, happy to sit back, comment from the sofa, and wait for someone else to do their thing, might be tolerable. During a pandemic where every day matters, it is costing lives.
The schools fiasco this week is perhaps the most acute example of this. Right back in December, experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned that sending pupils back for the new term would be a serious risk factor and the government should consider delaying it. They published evidence showing schools are a major transmission vector for the virus, spreading it between households.
But the government insisted it would stick to its reopening plan, ignoring later public warnings from unions and councils (many of them Conservative) alike, only to suggest some schools must remain closed with only days of warning.
As recently as Sunday, Johnson suggested schools were safe, and on Monday, thousands of them opened and millions of kids mingled – and then, inevitably, the government closed the schools for six weeks, with zero notice.
This isn’t cutesy dithering, or something excused by the prime minister’s supposed “libertarian instincts”. It is nothing short of professional neglect. People will catch the virus because their children mixed for one day on Monday. Some of those will need hospitalisation, at a time when wards are under unimaginable pressure. Some of those will die. Even leaving those dire consequences aside, schools lost the time to plan and prepare for a term of remote working, thanks to Johnson squandering it by saying that wouldn’t happen.
The result is a country scrambling to manage its vaccine rollout during a national lockout and with health service strained beyond capacity handling sick people – worse than most people’s worst case scenarios for the beginning of 2021.
The UK is a country cursed by leaders who would be much more comfortable sitting at the sidelines, probably criticising the vital public health measures as those of a “nanny state”.
They have left it too late for us to have a good spring – but there is still time to minimise the damage so far and to start to rebuild. In the spirit of getting off the sidelines and to start them off, here’s 11 ‘simple’ things the government could do to give Britain its best shot.
1. Stop over-promising
Time and again Johnson presents a best-case scenario that doesn’t then pan out – promising life would be back to normal by last summer, then autumn, then Christmas.
This week he pledged everyone in the top risk groups, some 13.4 million people, would be vaccinated by mid-February, when this lockdown is due to end. This would be fantastic if it were achieved, but the public is rightly sceptical when the government has missed every other target it has set – and when doing this would require vaccinations to immediately ramp up from 300,000 a week to 1.9 million a week, and hit this every time.
The government should manage expectations by setting us targets it is very confident it can meet, rather than best-case scenarios, and then – for once – giving us a pleasant rather than a nasty surprise by beating them.
2. Stop spinning, start communicating
The government loves giving out big numbers or outlining ambitious projects during its briefings, whether that’s operation moonshot (moon what?) – a bid to introduce huge scale population testing that has largely fizzled out – or pledging a stockpile of 30 million doses of vaccine by last September, which was missed.
Even experts and journalists don’t know how many vaccine doses we have, what testing looks like, or numerous other key bits of data. Instead of spinning its message, the government should go for radical transparency and open up as much real data as it can – even if the news isn’t good, the honesty and accountability is reassuring.
Similarly, the government should lift any prohibitions on NHS staff and leaders from speaking out on the situation as they see it, including – where possible and worked out with clinicians – letting cameras into Covid wards, to show the public (and especially sceptics) the reality of the crisis.
3. … and be radically transparent when it comes to the vaccine
That shift to communication should be turned up to 11 when it comes to the vaccine, upon which everyone is hanging their hopes of ending the misery of lockdown and the threat of coronavirus. The lead minister should commit to some form of daily communication – with questions from the media – with the public, and at minimum weekly communication with questions from parliament.
With that scrutiny regime in place, whatever is causing the logjams will soon become apparent out of our current fog, in which the NHS, government and manufacturers are all contradicting one another. Leading scientific advisors should be in place, and empowered to answer as to why some decisions are being made: is shifting to a single-dose strategy, for example, because we have fewer doses than expected? This may lead to bad headlines in the short term, but will help the government, civil society and the public understand and solve the problems, which will in time build trust in the process.
4. Trust the public, not your backbenchers
Time and again polling has consistently shown overwhelming public support – almost always by a ratio of 2:1 or better – for any Covid-related restrictions imposed by the government. The public understand the scale of this crisis and will accept extraordinary measures to tackle it, something of which as a nation we can justifiably be proud.
But instead of listening to the stoic public, the cabinet has repeatedly been paralysed listening to the hysterics from its own backbenchers and media outriders – largely a cohort of Brexiteers who have become so familiar at countering “project fear” over Brexit they’ve come to see every issue through the same lens.
This time, those backbenchers and commentators are just as out of touch with the public mood as they’ve ever accused Remain outriders of being. Ignoring them entirely would save everyone a lot of time, and come at zero political cost for the government.
5. Let people prepare
One lesson both Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak appear incapable of learning is that even tough restrictions can be managed much better if they are predictable and come with good warning.
Businesses can have time to run down their stock, cancel orders, work out rotas and other measures. Schools can use opportunities to try to make sure students have laptops and other equipment for remote lessons, and time to help teachers re-tool lesson plans to work.
But perhaps projecting their own inability to ever get a minute ahead of coronavirus, the government never acts until the last second – forcing everyone else to be as chaotic and wasteful as they are. That’s not actually necessary.
6. Provide real support for people who need it
The government and corners of the media have been too happy to condemn people for breaking rules without acknowledging that, for many, doing so is largely impossible. Is it a surprise people ignore orders to self-isolate when doing so doesn’t pay nearly as much as their wages? Is it a surprise people go to work sick when Statutory Sick Pay is so low, and when employers penalise workers for sick leave?
Is it a surprise when some people are desperate to go out and get work to find an income when around three million self-employed workers have been left out of government support schemes entirely? Instead of repeatedly ignoring these issues, the government could tackle them – doing so costs money, but less than ignoring them already has.
7. Do something material for NHS workers
No-one is going out and clapping for NHS workers any more. It’s not clear it would help all that much if they did. But everyone in the NHS – cleaners, porters, and even (boo, hiss) managers as well as doctors and nurses – is working flat out and is pushed to their extremes right now.
Announcing something concrete, rather than some tokenistic medal or similar, to improve prospects as the crisis abates could improve morale as well as being the right thing to do. The government should consult with staff and unions – should it be a pay rise, a review of conditions, a mixture of both or something else? Whatever is decided, showing real support rather than fleeting gestures would be heard loud and clear.
8. Stop ignoring the schools crisis
We know remote learnings is nowhere near as good as face-to-face teaching, and we know that it has drastic effects on already existing educational inequalities. This is compounded by the fact that months into this crisis 1.8 million children don’t have laptops or tablets and others lack internet access.
We need to stop pretending we can fix this quickly enough to make up this school year. Children have taken a huge hit this pandemic despite being largely resistant to the disease. Fixing it will take massive measures: some have proposed having every child retake this year. Others suggest ongoing, expensive support for students who need the catch-up assistance. The government should pledge to investigate and take major, not token, action here.
9. Stop the lockdown rollercoaster
We are ten months into this. We all hate lockdown, we all know it’s hugely expensive, and we all want to return to normal. But our current cycle of constantly changing rules is exhausting and is itself hugely damaging to businesses who keep getting caught out.
So let’s stop it: instead of opening as fast as we can and closing again, let’s reopen more slowly as the vaccine rolls out, but with a pledge that barring the hugest of surprises, once something reopens it stays open. Slow and steady but reliable will be better for everyone than the current maniacal back and forth.
10. Set up the public inquiry now
There will inevitably be at least one public inquiry into how the coronavirus is handled. There will probably be several – and there should be. The government should announce the steps to set this up now, so that people know it is coming and can test it to see if they trust it will be truly independent and have a broad mandate. That the reckoning will come as the crisis abates will itself restore confidence in the meantime, even if it gives a few ministers sleepless nights.
11. Treat the nation
This should be the easiest thing in the world for a would-be good-time prime minister, and yet Johnson has not yet announced it. Don’t specify a date, but announce that when a certain all-clear stage is reached the UK will have two or three extra bank holidays for a bonus long weekend, as a thank you to everyone.
It’s not much, but it would be something to look forward to – which at the moment is in desperately short supply.