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Coronavirus: How government arrogance could kill

Boris Johnson stands behind the podium at 10 Downing Street - Credit: PA Wire

At the height of the last pandemic to hit the UK – the 1987 AIDS crisis – the government released a terrifying ad. At its conclusion it showed a huge tombstone, upon which was engraved the message: “DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE.”

The campaign was deliberately engineered to be terrifying (one TV spot featured a volcano), and in that at least it succeeded – and while it almost certainly contributed to the homophobic attitudes and abuse of the period, it also drew huge public attention towards the crisis, and towards accompanying information on how people could and could not catch HIV.

At the time the ‘don’t die of ignorance’ campaign was launched, fewer than six hundred people in the UK had died of AIDS.

Today, more than 40,000 UK residents have been killed by Covid-19 – but when the prime minister was asked a basic question about his government’s new rules to tackle the public health emergency this week, he gave the wrong answer.

Nine months into the biggest global emergency in living memory, the UK government messaging is less clear and less effective than the notoriously slow and homophobia-mired response to the AIDS pandemic.

Advertising and messaging are the things this government is supposed to be good at – and they are nowhere on those. It is, then, unsurprising that they are failing even more profoundly at everything else required for proper response to a pandemic.

Perhaps the core failure has been on track and trace.

The first lockdown bought, at great economic expense and psychological toll, time for the government to act to protect the NHS, build testing capacity, and prepare the country. It is clear, as we head into autumn, that this time was squandered.

Every expert warned that cases would rise again in at this time of year, for a variety of reasons. For one, most coronaviruses peak in winter, so there was good reason to think this would too. For another, outdoor socialising, social distancing, and keeping public spaces well-ventilated is much easier in hot summer weather than colder autumns.

As a third factor, the rise of seasonal cold and flu symptoms would mean lots more people would present with symptoms requiring coronavirus tests.

Even if the government wasn’t minded to listen to those experts on this, a report it commissioned gave all the same warnings. And lest they hadn’t paid attention to that either, Keir Starmer in July waved it in Boris Johnson’s face at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The conclusion could not have been clearer: the UK would need a full, timely track and trace system in place by autumn for us to have any semblance of a normal life – and it would need vastly higher capacity than it scraped by with over summer.

Autumn is here and that is not what we have. Instead there has been months of switching which bit of the NHS runs ordering tests, or which private company develops apps – fiddling with the IT while we’ve failed to build actual lab capacity.

Bizarrely, the government is allowing the track and trace system to be helmed on a ‘voluntary’ basis by Dido Harding, a telecoms exec best known for her management of a huge data leak at TalkTalk, one of the most egregious data losses in UK corporate history.

Harding is now a Conservative peer, but the government refuses to clarify whether she is running a life-or-death operation as a minister, civil servant, or special advisor – a breach of every normal measure of parliamentary accountability.

Whenever an MP or committee tries to push for answers or accountability on the failings of testing, they are instead huffily treated to an indignant lecture questioning how they dare challenge someone trying to do something so important – with the bizarre implication that because she’s doing it voluntarily, it somehow places her above reproach.

Without reliable testing, any tracing operation is doomed to failure – if results are delayed then the tracing operation has no hope of contacting people in a reasonable amount of time to self-isolate.

It may almost be a mercy if the tracing operation is rendered irrelevant, as it has been struggling to contact even the limited set of people who have been passed to its services, once again a product of the government’s reflexive desire to turn to the private sector instead of the public.

Thousands of trained contact tracers in local councils (who in normal times would help trace food poisoning and similar issues) were left ignored.

Perhaps most damaging of all has been the loss of public spirit and solidarity which helped sustain the country through the first lockdown and kept people complying with the measures.

Part of this is a natural response to people’s frustrations at being in restrictions that this time they know could have been avoided – but part of it is clearly an effect of the government’s ‘one rule for us, one rule for them’ approach, most notoriously displayed in Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip.

Instead of admitting having broken the rules or made a mistake, Cummings asked the country to believe he’d gone on a 45-minute drive, with his wife and child in the car, to test his eyesight – and the government had minister after minister go out to repeat the claim and defend their man. The results were predictable to everyone, except them.

The incident reveals the characteristic trait of this government: it is unable to say sorry, for anything. Chief advisor breaks the rules? No, you misunderstood them. Contact tracing capacity built too little, too late? It’s bad people not registering themselves. Not enough tests? No-one could foresee this.

We have to get through this crisis, and sadly we have to do it with this government. If it is to restore any kind of public trust, it needs to learn how to say sorry, and needs to do so publicly – and soon.

If not, we won’t be dying of ignorance – we’ll by killed by their arrogance.

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