JAMES BALL: Ministers had our goodwill but squandered it

The government are looking for a culture war and for any scapegoat to distract from its own failings

The government are looking for a culture war and for any scapegoat to distract from its own failings." Picture: Lucie Goodayle - Credit: Archant

The government went into this crisis with the country pulling together. As it falls apart, ministers have only themselves to blame, says JAMES BALL.

As it became clear coronavirus would not be contained, would become a pandemic, and would hit Britain, there were those of us who said its arrival would mean doing something previously unthinkable: giving Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt.

This reasoning felt sound at the time: the government seemed to be following, even if chaotically and slowly, the same plan as the rest of the world by that stage – introducing against its own instincts a lockdown, creating the furlough plan, and at least talking a good game on testing.

Tackling coronavirus while keeping its toll to a minimum would always be a marathon, not a sprint, would always involve missteps – handling the first pandemic of its kind of the modern era – and would be utterly reliant on public trust in the government.

Given that, it was clearly not the time for culture wars or all-out-attacks: we should try to criticise the government and hold it to account, but otherwise try to not undermine it as it tackled an unprecedented emergency. During a crisis we need to pull together – at least to an extent.

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Sadly for the UK, the government never seemed to get that memo, or at least did not sign up to its conclusions. The results, as we come into summer, are that the government has squandered its early goodwill, wreaked havoc on the economy and overseen a death toll now well over 40,000. It now has zero credibility left to spend.

What's more, it's increasingly apparent the government has no plan out of this – none of its apparently strange decisions have been early steps in a strategy, or distraction while real work goes on behind the scenes. It turns out the obvious public blundering we've seen is all that's going on. Thanks to this, comparing anything to a 2020 summer's day will be no compliment.

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We must not lose sight of the core failing of the government: it has failed to keep its public safe in a time of crisis. A combination of blunders on the timing of lockdown, delayed and inaccurate testing, and a woeful failure to grip the care homes crisis has left the UK with one of the highest death tolls in the world as well as one of the longest lockdowns to date.

The result has been to harm the people and harm the economy – rather than saving one at the expense of the other. A healthy economy relies on a healthy populace, something the government never seemed to realise.

It might not have been entirely Johnson's fault if the UK entered the crisis under-prepared: he has been prime minister for less than a year, though his party has been in power for a decade before that. Long-term planning failings can't be laid at the door of the current government, if we are being scrupulously fair.

The problem for Johnson is that everything after that point can be, and virtually everything that could go wrong has: rather than using the lockdown to build up testing, tracking and tracing capabilities, the government instead seems to have talked a big game and then delivered almost none of it.

The confusions continue, with the government introducing a quarantine long after one would've been useful, then trying to find ways to shortcut its own policy with 'air bridges', then hearing from businesses that quarantines aren't good for reopening, and then announcing a U-turn. And then getting confused on that.

Even opening the pubs has been bungled: the government allowed the newspapers to trail June 22 as a return to beer gardens, only to then announce it definitely won't be before July 4.

Wherever we need clarity, they bring confusion. Wherever we need certainty, they sow doubt – but worse, when we need unity, they have been seeding division.

The original sin of Conservative governments is a concern among the rest of us that they don't think the same rules apply to them as do to us: they're the boss class, and we're the workers. Just months after winning an election on the votes of millions of working class people who previously might have voted Labour, the Conservatives confirmed that fear in the most public way imaginable: backing Dominic Cummings – not even one of their own – to the hilt, after he blatantly breached lockdown rules, having let lesser advisors resign for less.

Doing this in the middle of eroding confidence in the lockdown tested the system almost to destruction. More and more people disregarded rules, paid less attention to social distancing, considered the lockdown all but over – some citing Cummings' actions while doing so.

We are left only to hope that this thoughtlessness from many of us doesn't lead to a second wave – especially as it was followed by a far more justified, if still potentially dangerous, surge of people taking to the streets with a series of Black Lives Matter protests. This leaves us with an incredibly dangerous situation in which a media all-too-ready to blame black people for crimes they did not commit, and a government looking for a culture war and for any scapegoat to distract from its own failings, try to blame any coming second wave on those protestors.

This narrative would be false, it would be morally wrong, and it would be deeply divisive and corrosive of trust in the government – just as it would be most needed, to drag us through further lockdowns and further deaths. We are left only with hope: the perhaps faint hope that a second wave won't materialise, and the utterly false hope that if one did, Boris Johnson would handle it any better than the first.

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