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The political shortcomings exposed by the coronavirus pandemic

Martin Rowson on Matt Hancock's face mask. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the dearth of government talent on display.

History’s verdict on the Johnson government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is still a long way off. An early British vaccine breakthrough could save the day. But hindsight may conclude that the moment its faltering grip on the narrative lost public confidence in the here and now came last Friday. That was the day when senior Tory MPs criticised ministers for ‘treating voters like children’ and frontline medical and care staff found themselves being asked to re-use PPE kit because it was in such short supply. More than 100 have now died, ethnic minority staff conspicuous among them.

All these decisions are difficult and ministerial policy may be right or wrong. But personal protective equipment is an emotive issue, graphically illustrated in the press and on TV for days in ways everyone can grasp. Voters can also see that something must be amiss if PPE kit is still being exported to Germany while that famous consignment of 400,000 gowns from Turkey was announced as being dispatched before it had actually been ordered.

No, wait, there are supplies landing from Myanmar. And some finally getting through from Turkey too. Phew. Shame we can’t seem to get domestic output up – despite all those offers from the garment trade – and that the £20 million purchase of anti-viral tests from China proved a dud. It did not help that scientists were wobbling publicly over their expert advice on mask-wearing (‘the precautionary principle’ pitted against shortages among NHS and care staff) and feuding privately over conflicting versions of pandemic modelling.

Getting the model’s infection’s basic reproduction ratio below R:1 – and keeping it there – is the key to an exit timetable for the costly, spooky month-old lockdown which those Tory MPs were demanding. Tony Blair’s think tank helpfully published a traffic light plan for gradual normalisation on Monday, which is more than ministers have done. The No.10 line is not to distract from the core ‘stay at home’ message or the twin success (in its view) of stretching out the Covid peak and giving the NHS time to avoid being overwhelmed.

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But by Friday more newspapers were starting to highlight differences between the ‘back to business’ hawks, Gove and Truss following Rishi Sunak’s Treasury lead, and the doves, led by health’s Matt Hancock. Fresh from his own brief dalliance with the Grim Reaper, Boris Johnson was – for once – siding with those urging caution. Sensible perhaps, but taken in the round it smacks of indecision.

Little wonder that loyalist MPs and media began echoing Keir Starmer’s speculation that the cabinet is in ‘limbo’ without its still-recuperating leader to drive forward urgent decisions and actions.

Friday’s No.10 press conference, usually a dourly uninspiring occasion, cautious and defensive in tone, was taken by Alok Sharma, the business secretary. Dull and decent, reportedly a re-opening hawk, he is never going to be Henry V inspiring the troops before Agincourt. Care homes deaths had been re-calculated at 3,769 for the first week in April – 50% more than in the previous week and clearly more Covid-19 related than the official 219 fatality figure suggested.

By April 10, it now turns out, the overall week’s death rate was 18,500 – the highest for 20 years. The muddle inside the ministerial-expert vortex continued over ventilator supplies and effectiveness. Is oxygen treatment a better option, as it was for the PM, some medics asked? Have we got enough oxygen anyway? And that joint EU ventilator scheme? Did or didn’t we stay out as a deliberate political decision?

Inside any major crisis there are always running mini-crises, SNAFUs, as American soldiers said in the Second World War (as in Situation Normal, All F**ked Up). What keeps the show on the road is the public’s belief that strong leadership’s guiding intelligence – a Churchill, an FDR or Stalin, even a Hitler (almost to the end) – is in overall control. Confidence is what is missing in 2020. For half Britain it has been absent from the start. Boris Johnson is a divisive figure. But the other half shows signs of faltering, though the opinion polls (53% approval) are slow to pick it up. When lost, trust is hard to recover. Ask Theresa May.

The growing gap between daily Covid testing – 20,000 done on Monday despite an expanded 30,000 capacity – and the elusive target of 100,000 by April 30 (‘Hancock made it up’) was enough to demoralise tired ministers on sunny Friday – watching viewers too. On top of it the Bank of England had just confirmed the Treasury’s own scary calculations from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). The locked-down economy might already have shrunk by 35% and would leave deep ‘scars’ on society.

Zoom-quizzed by Jeremy Hunt, his predecessor as health secretary, poacher-turned-gamekeeper as chair of the Commons health committee, Hancock again looked and sounded exhausted, though he did not snap as he did at the BBC’s Nick Robinson. One of those telly-scientists had just casually told Hunt’s online committee the UK death toll could reach 40,000, the highest in Europe. Pushing 20,000 already, long-awaited signs of the peak were cautiously acknowledged this week, amid tell-tail signs from back-to-normal China, Japan, even high-tech Singapore, that a second wave might be emerging.

Worse than Feeble Friday was to follow for the government at the weekend when the FT, the Sunday Times and ultra-loyal Sunday Borisgraph printed damning pieces on the cabinet’s apparent 38-day dither. Surely a sensible government under siege would consolidate the line, straighten out hard-to-defend policy salients and apologise for its mistakes. European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, offered Italy an unreserved apology for the EU’s collective selfishness at the start of Lombardy’s Covid crisis. Brits still await such concessions from its own proudly sovereign government.

Instead we have watched ministers repeatedly justifying the most conspicuous of its controversial policy salient: the December 31 deadline to leave the transition phase of Brexit, with or without a trade (etc) agreement with the 27. ‘We will not ask to extend the transition. If the EU asks, we will say no,’ a No.10 official told the FT. Why? It would only prolong business uncertainty and ‘delay the moment of control of our borders.’

Control of our borders? During a pandemic when no checks are being done at UK airports? When EU citizens are crucial to the NHS and care industry’s continuing function? The No.10 line was worse than that. Apparently the EU is ‘restricting the UK’s ability to respond to the economic and political crises’ arising from the pandemic. You what? Besides, Whitehall claims to believe there is still enough time to cut a deal.

This insouciance is striking for three reasons. The most obvious is that the world is going to be changed forever by the pandemic, its economic habits and its power relationship. In last week’s TNE Andrew Adonis rightly called out Beijing’s repressive secrecy over the December outbreak in Wuhan, calling it ‘China’s Chernobyl’. But international relations are less of a morality play than we like to think. The communist-Confucian autocracy may emerge from Covid less economically damaged and politically stronger, despite is culpability. Whatever it now says about a Chinese ‘reckoning’ a weakened No-Mates Britain will have painful strategic choices to make.

Secondly, as optimists have pointed out, the country has pulled together well during Covid. All four countries actually, Brexit wounds have had time to heal. Devolved regimes in Cardiff and Wales have sometimes jumped the lockdown gun (acted faster?) than London. But I have sensed little point-scoring, even when Whitehall has opted unilaterally to water down the previously-agreed severity of England’s lockdown rules. It’s too serious for point-scoring.

From the ‘Wifi Woodstock’ on TV to countless acts of neighbourly kindness and heroic bravery by care staff, the altruistic good done has greatly outweighed the selfish bikers (I witness aggression from my window, not all of it by men), the hoarding and the online fraud that get the headlines. Within that context I have detected little evidence of ‘diehard Remainers’ and ‘Remoaners’ dashing to the TV studios to make a very obvious point: in being carelessly Covid-complacent for five or six crucial weeks this winter, Johnson’s government was behaving much as it did towards the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

I know. Now is not the right time for full-throttle recrimination, as distinct from the greater transparency and accountability that parliament’s return this week should provide: new technology, new Starmer. Zoom Starmer, anyone? But given the alleged fanaticism of the ‘Remoaners’, their willingness to ‘betray Britain’ at every turn, their restraint is remarkable. Mild David Lidington (remember him?) mildly suggested on Monday that an extension is ‘inevitable’ because there isn’t enough negotiating bandwidth left.

I’m sure he’s right and that Johnson simply knows now is not yet the time to announce a U-turn that will require a Commons vote to amend his foolish law. It would prompt a revolt from the headbangers at a hyper-sensitive moment for those in deep denial. After all, a major crisis is the test of any regime’s foresight, competence and compassion. And which European state looks like doing best? Currently (pause for embarrassed non-Covid cough) it looks like Germany.

Angela Merkel, her waning authority restored by deft handling of the pandemic, is urging Covid caution. For once Boris seems to be taking her advice. If Berlin’s evident competence – mass testing and contact tracing – is a victory for the sovereign nation state acting to protect its citizens it is certainly not one for Boris’s sovereign Britain to boast about. What was the slogan on that bus? Take Back Misrule? Vote Leave and its referendum allies (where’s Farage hiding by, the way?) mistook the EU for the pandemic scientists had long predicted.

But the existential threat to our way of life wasn’t posed by Jean-Claude Juncker. It came courtesy of an even cuter little pangolin, sold as an exotic delicacy in a Wuhan wet market, but carrying a bonus species-hopping virus: still the most likely cause of the global death count of 150,000-plus. Modern food production should also be on the post-Covid checklist as we learn to live with the virus, to manage rather than conquer it, in the months and years ahead.

But my third explanation for apparent ministerial insouciance is, public support or not, the underlying fragility of the Johnson administration. The podium appearances of the Raabs, Hancocks, Jenricks and Sharmas, the hapless sound of junior local government minister, Simon Clarke on Radio 4’s Today (he didn’t ask 5,000 town hall environment inspectors for their testing expertise because he didn’t know they’d offered and it was someone else’s job anyway), all underline how weak the batting order is.

Only Rishi Sunak, rapidly adjusting flaws in the Treasury’s rescue plan, sounds on top of his brief. Not only does he lucidly do the details, but the big picture too. The others’ horizons barely stretch beyond getting through the next bland sentence. It’s painful, and Tory tribal loyalty is starting to fray. The Sunday Times Insight team did a hatchet job on Boris’s lost 38 days. ‘He liked his country breaks, he didn’t work weekends… there was a real sense he didn’t do urgent crisis planning’ said one official. Ouch!

It prompted a 2,000-word No.10 rebuttal after a spluttering TV defence from Michael Gove. Picking up on inaccurate details while ducking the article’s main thrust is standard bad PR, straight from the Harry-and-Meghan playbook. Arguably more significant was the Sunday Telegraph’s ‘How Asian Preparation Beat UK’s Fatalism’ version of the same story. It told how the findings of pandemic Exercise Cygnus (2016) were shelved. Yet the Telegraph avoided drawing the obvious conclusion for its Brexit readership: that minds were focussed elsewhere in 2016 and since. It reminded me of watching US cable news during an epic East Coast hurricane: literally no one mentioned climate change as a major contributing factor.yes.

In the wake of such media disloyalty – on Wednesday the Sun also went wobbly – it was striking in my little Twitter world that those rushing to rubbish the newspapers and defend Boris were my Brexit regulars, busy denying inconvenient facts as usual. Alas, this habit feeds into the wider picture in which a familiar mindset filters out whatever it doesn’t want to hear. It demands that the economy – British, French or American – reopen because Covid is ‘just flu’ or just a ‘hoax’.

It’s the gilet jaune mindset, the ‘redneck and proud of it’ attitude of gun-toting midwesterners who protested in Minnesota – and elsewhere – against their Democratic governors’ tight lockdown rules. And, as with Brexit, they do have a point, albeit a short-sighted one. As Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis put it, we’re not all in this together as Lady Gaga claimed from her luxurious bolthole. The lockdown bears down far worse on those with insecure jobs and crowded housing, the self-employed and poorly-educated. They aren’t being paid to work at home, are they? They don’t have savings to live off.

They’re also right that huge economic damage is being done. But wrong to imagine a second or even fourth Covid wave wouldn’t hurt them even more. It’s the Brexit mistake again. ‘Things couldn’t be much worse.’ Oh, yes they could. But political and cultural grievance merchants are already preying on their protests – in Europe and Asia as well as in the American heartland. Donald Trump’s ‘Liberate Minnesota’ tweets are cruder than all but the ‘Ostrich Four’ – Brazil, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Sandinista Nicaragua are all in total denial – but at least the grisly foursome never urged the lockdown Trump now subverts.

So citizens’ right to work and the Second Amendment right to bear arms are fed into the grievance mix from the White House and Fox News along with anti-lockdown advocacy. It threatens the average Fox viewer – 65, less-educated and probably overweight – more than it does Harvard grads. China and Russia are playing similar games. So, in its small world, is the coterie around the Spectator magazine whose former editor is at Chequers. It’s all exaggerated and the cost of the lockdown is too high, they say. Let’s cuts taxes and deregulate.

At a time when the UN is brokering ceasefire across the world’s conflict zones and the G20 is trying to coordinate a global response, we can reasonably hope that fastidious Sunak will resist reopening the culture wars.

My hunch is that the return of a plausibly-electable, post-Corbyn Labour party gives the media new freedom to criticise Boris Johnson’s failings. How long will it last and which way would the Telegraph jump if forced to chose between the interests of the country and those of its offshore owners? Would Brexit Tories behave better than their US Republican counterparts? Above all, what would Johnson do? As usual, we just don’t know.

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