The long lag between Boris Johnson and the country’s recovery from coronavirus
- Credit: Archant
MICHAEL WHITE asks will we all rise again after the Covid-19 pandemic?
Even well-read atheists know that Easter's message of resurrection and redemption is at the heart of Christian faith and must be hoping that the Boris Johnson who emerged soberly from his near-death experience at St Thomas' Hospital is a better man than the cavalier fellow who tested positive for Covid-19 two weeks earlier.
Persecuted Tory Euro-rebel, Nicholas Soames, a politician of better character, certainly thinks so. 'He's moved up a notch… A national leader,' Sir Nick told the BBC. I'm not sure that opting to read Tintin or watch Love Actually and Withnail & I while recuperating is conclusive proof. Shouldn't that be Edward Gibbon or Pericles, Boris's Athenian hero? Whoops, not Pericles, he died of the plague.
Redemption would be small consolation for Boris' past misdemeanours, you may feel. But we are where we are. Johnson may have had a personal resurrection in his ICU, one which I suspect may give him some immunity from the eventual Covid inquiry. He now says the NHS is 'powered by love'. It's not a column I recall reading in the Borisgraph. Perhaps I missed it.
In her own televised speech the Queen set an admirably steadfast tone. Quoting from the Book of Vera Lynn, she told us: 'We will meet again.' So most of us will. But British society will be lucky to be out of the economic tomb in three years, not the Biblical three days from what is now pitched – surely hysterically – as the worst slump since the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720. If the wider world bounces back faster, it will be the authoritarian states of East Asia, not the North Atlantic community which has dominated the planet's affairs for 500 years.
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That much is becoming clearer by the day as the economic damage of the lockdown mounts up. A 15% fall in GDP for 2020? Should we double that? Or halve it? We just don't know. Ever more painfully visible too is the human cost in terms of lost lives and livelihoods, lost opportunity and lost peace of mind. The British state's failure to act quickly and decisively to reduce coronavirus' impact has been an avoidable tragedy, but a domestic one.
Unless improbably redeemed in the months ahead, the far greater failure of global statecraft by Donald Trump's White House – crude and complacent – may come to be seen as one of history's geo-political turning points. For all America's flaws, it will not be not a good one. In my own lockdown I have been reading William Dalrymple's The Anarchy, a vivid account of the collapse of Delhi's mighty Mughal Empire into the grasping hands of a private corporation, Britain's East India Company – think Goldman Sachs with artillery – in a few mid-18th century decades.
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Such collapses can happen slowly or fast, as can the emergence of new powers. In the 40 years after 1918 six multi-national European empires collapsed. In the 40 years since 1980 backward China has become an assertive superpower, making its goods and money indispensable to strategically targeted local regimes much as 'The Company' did in Bengal in the 1750s. Huawei's 5G tech battles for access to European computer networks is not so different from those ports and railways Beijing builds (and owns) in Africa. The debate over Asia-pioneered contact-tracing apps, brilliant but sinister, underlines how much is at stake.
On current trends it will not greatly matter whether Britain is inside the EU or prospering – or not – outside it. Europe has fluffed repeated opportunities to re-invent itself – and restore its global clout – in its post-imperial era. Even its go-to regulatory regimes are threatened by the new nationalism. Brussels now looks like flunking the opportunities presented by the coronavirus crisis to coordinate an effective health response to the pandemic or the mutualisation of debt within the Eurozone. That is the necessary, but much-ducked linchpin of the single currency. The Latin bloc will not pay the political price of budget supervision from Brussels and Berlin, the Teutonic bloc flinch at the financial burden.
So last week's fudge by finance ministers, a new credit line from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), reinsurance for national unemployment schemes and more credit from the European Investment Bank (EIB), is unlikely to meet the crisis' needs unless German optimism about a V-shaped recovery extends to the zone, which looks improbable.
Not even an activist European Central Bank – yet again technocrats doing better than elected politicians – will be able to save Italy if its third recession in 12 years pushes debt closer to 200% of GDP than its current 135%. In Matteo Salvini, Rome's new Mussolini bides his time.
In this context it is almost comic to read in Tuesday's FT that Michel ('ticking clock') Barnier and Johnson's negotiator, born-again Brexit diplomat, David Frost, were going to talk by phone – both are recovering from Covid-19 – this week to fix a fresh series of specialist negotiations on Britain's future trade relationship to meet Johnson's insistence on ending the transition – single market and customs union etc – by December 31. Rishi Sunak confirmed that date mid-week.
Coronavirus is the 'events, dear boy' event which has derailed this Yellow Brick Road timetable unless the government takes another reckless gamble with our shattered economy. With evidence steadily emerging of its failure properly to prepare PPE kits, testing regimes and anti-viral research – more of that later – volatile and anxious public opinion may not look kindly on the option.
Everyone is still too busy firefighting the virus to say yet that Johnson will have to seek an extension, pleading force majeure. It is an easily defended retreat to all but hardcore headbangers and conspiracy theorists, the kind of people who think that £20 notes and 5G phone masts are secretly spreading Covid-19 and probably obesity as well. Yes, I mean you, David Icke, and you ITV's Eamonn Holmes who should be put into permanent self-isolation by Ofcom for this week's outburst.
Considering that only Johnson can take such a symbolic decision and he won't be back in charge for a week or so, time is short. Why? Because any extension – only one is allowed under the Brexit treaty – has to be agreed by the end of June, its length and terms, the very welcome cash contribution the UK would have to make temporarily to fill the £8 billion (net) hole its departure creates. That's just 10 Covid-packed weeks away.
I've almost abandoned hope that some earth-shaking event would persuade a decisive swathe of UK voters that the tangible risks of Brexit outweigh the theoretical gains (and the very tangible Trump). The EU27's failure to pull together over PPE and other Covid issues won't have helped. Nor did Hungary's despotic lurch and Poland's populist government's expedient insistence on staging its presidential election on May 5 despite Covid – by postal ballot. Shocking stuff.
So not much is likely to be changed by Tuesday's Guardian revelation, shocking in its own way and rapidly confirmed by rival papers, that the Johnson government missed a string of EU Covid-19 meetings it was entitled to attend at official or ministerial level between February and late March. It thus missed an important chance to join a bulk procurement of masks (will we all soon be wearing them?), gowns and gloves, items of PPE which have been in short supply. The failure puts frontline NHS and care home workers at greater peril.
In recent weeks I've argued here that now is not the time for recrimination and the blame game. I've even argued that ministers might prove to have been right in delaying the imposition of the UK lockdown until March 20, weeks after some EU states (I stopped using public transport myself on March 11) on the grounds that it would be hard to sustain as warmer weather beckoned. Opinion polls now mock the 'nudge theory' – advice, not instruction – that lay behind it. Most people are determined to comply.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing and many experts now lashing the government were not doing so in late January when China finally came clean over human-to-human transmission in Wuhan. Of course, most of us didn't have access to the scientific advice available to Johnson and his ministers.
An excellent Reuters analysis last week revealed how conflicting much of it was and how cautious the boffins were in stepping up their UK risk assessment.
It rose from 'low' to 'moderate' on January 30 – the day before those Big Ben bongs which so agitated ministers – and to 'high' only on March 13, when vulnerable oldies were told to self-isolate. All the while valuable time was being lost in not preparing for what lay ahead.
There is no point in blaming Theresa May, Cameron or even Brown. Ministers are now struggling to catch up on kit, review dud policy (masks or not?) and hospital capacity. They are doing so from 'behind the curve,' as New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, puts it. Remember, a huge Nightingale hospital with only 19 patients doesn't mean building it was a mistake. Feeble testing levels are.
All this will come out. What is conspicuously missing now, easily rectified but always hard for run-of-the-mill politicians to do, is to admit error, apologise and promise to do better. That's human nature, but it's right to put up your hands. The media's chaotic line of questioning has left much to be desired. But it has been painful to watch the daily No.10 press conference and see acting-PM (who'd have thought it) Raab, Priti Patel (briefly released from political self-isolation), Matt Hancock and crew, all passing the buck to their advisers and cravenly refusing to use the s-word.
Their stubbornness justifies a media kicking until they do. The statisticians' report that the April death rate is around 6,000 a week higher than average is grim. The prospect of emerging with the highest Covid death rate in Europe will not look good either. Smug Germans will say 'told you so', as may lax Swedes. Figures are hard to compare and easily massaged. It remains too soon to be sure.
Among Boris Johnson's many underlying conditions – his lying ones too – have been a tangential relationship with the truth and a reluctance to apologise for past porkies. But this column is staging a partial ceasefire (small arms only) until the crisis has peaked and takes comfort from his notoriously flexible principles working in new harmony with his intelligence. Let us hope that post-corona Boris really is different. Back on Easter morning from his 'could have gone either way' moment, did he write two columns, do you think, one pro-Leave, the other Remain? Is he sufficiently 'powered by love' to tell his minions to apologise now? Better still to do it himself, thereby signalling that the Prodigal has turned over a new leaf?
In his Radio 4 interview the aforementioned Nick Soames also suggested that the viral disaster may restore less crudely partisan and shouty politics. At a time when we are all aware of heroic sacrifice and tragedy, of beer and milk poured down drains, of a million-plus volunteers doing good, of high-end divorce alimony left unpaid because the markets crashed and spring lamb left uneaten (ditto), Sir Nick's is a good ambition. Even Google and Facebook are cleaning up some of the lethal fake news polluting their lucrative social media platforms.
And, if Boris the Love Bomber does not set a shining example, perhaps the forensic Sir Keir Starmer can lead or drag him towards better habits. Ah, yes, Sir Keir. Remember him? These have been such frantic days that the new Labour leader has barely impacted on Fleet Street's front pages or caught much attention from the commentariat, let alone voters, though pro-Brexit fanatics are already trolling him online. I suspect he doesn't much mind because he has much work to do indoors, clearing out the horse manure accumulated in Jeremy Corbyn's Augean stable. It can all go to the allotment.
It is vital that parliament quickly finds a means to sit virtually, safely and effectively, as it did when German bombs were dropping on the Commons and elsewhere. It is not just about a platform for Starmer. Accountability is what keeps governments on their toes, the ingredient that may yet save us from Eastern deference and sluggish autocracy. If Boris prevaricates, someone should send for Gina Miller who knows the way to the Supreme Court.
Savings lives is currently the priority, lives which might also be lost to cancer or heart attacks while emergency beds lie empty in anticipation of a Covid surge. The vacuum in cabinet, particularly strong in one created to fit the contours of Johnson's exotic personality, has meant that decisions on the lockdown exit strategy (should that be Lexit, Cexit or Vexit?) have been kicked into touch along with the delicate balance to be wrought between protecting the old and protecting the young from economic damage.
Tabloids weep crocodile tears for care homes whose under-funded problems they helped perpetuate with 'death tax' scares. It has been a scandal for years. Nor surely can there be many objections to a points system for allocating scare ventilators and ICU beds among the elderly. Triage is what doctors do all the time. It's just that we notice when cause of death can be specifically attributed to Covid-19 – or a drunken driver – in ways we miss when poverty or mental illness produce the same result. When and how to re-open the haemorrhaging economy is the tough strategic choice ahead.
Being behind the pandemic curve, as Britain has been, will at least allow ministers and officials to learn better from the steps other exit states are now taking, most of them cautiously. If Whitehall and Westminster need any lessons in humility they can always look to the US, as China's propaganda machine invites the world to do, alas with much justification. All the mistakes now being documented about British policy formation happened much worse in Washington, the New York Times reports.
Obsessed with his own re-election prospects, rampaging Trump aggressively dismissed the pandemic threat and now aggressively denies ever doing so. Instead he bullies the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its share of mistakes. When Anthony Fauci, his Chris Whitty, gently contradicts his more dangerously half-baked nostrums, the president threatens him with dismissal. When some of the 50 states band together to protect themselves from his disorder he threatens them too.
The EU has some excuses for its inaction, precisely because it is not a sovereign state and has no health powers. With its established constitution the US has no such excuse. It is shaming. In this edition of The New European, wiser heads than mine are looking optimistically to the better global order that this disaster may allow mankind to fashion. Here's hoping. 'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,' said a radical who died in Mussolini's jail. Thinking along similar lines today, another Italian, ex-PM Matteo Renzi, is calling for a Commission into the Future.
As one Hong Kong graffiti artist puts it: 'There can be no return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.'
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