Incompetence, or Something More Sinister?
Why the Tories’ latest message could be clearer than it first appears.
Back at the beginning of January, the whole world knew of COVID-19 and it was becoming increasingly clear just how serious a disease it is. It was also when the UK’s Prime minister Boris Johnson skipped the first of five COBRA meetings to tackle the growing crisis.
I recently read a timeline of events relating to the UK’s handling of the disease. While it offered no new information for me, seeing each decision laid out chronologically, in tandem with breaking news and the actions of other governments, left me furious.
Back in February, a leaked government document predicted that half a million UK citizens could die in a worst-case scenario. At the same time, Dominic Cummings’s coronavirus strategy was described as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
Instead of attending COBRA meetings, Johnson went on ‘working holidays’. His work involved prioritising his own divorce settlement over the health of the state he has apparently always felt destined to lead.
In March he was bragging about shaking hands with coronavirus patients, and attended a Six Nations match in a stadium of 82,000 people. While other countries were banning large gatherings, the Conservatives saw fit to allow the Cheltenham Festival, attracting over a quarter of a million people, to go ahead. As the month went on, sports events like Premier League football matches were unilaterally abandoned in the absence of government action.
While other countries were shutting down, testing and tracing, we were told we shouldn’t go to the pub — but they’d remain open. The message didn’t get any clearer, either. When the ‘lockdown’ finally began for real we were told not to go out — by a Prime minister openly hoping to visit his own mother on Mother’s Day.
Having declined to join PPE procurement schemes with the EU, Brexit ideology saw the Tories continue to spurn similar opportunities to acquire urgently needed ventilators. They later inaccurately and ineffectively denied what was dubbed ‘Brexit Over Breathing’ — believing it somehow looked better to blame their own incompetence instead.
Contact retracing, the method so effective in South Korea, wasn’t restarted in the UK until April 23rd. Their handling of the virus saw the UK’s death toll become the highest in Europe. This was the point Johnson chose to declare their record to be a globally enviable success.
Even to those of us who weren’t getting regular updates from WHO and others in the scientific community, the need to act was apparent long before the Conservatives chose to. The UK and the US are two of the most neoliberal states on the planet, and two of the worst hit — it isn’t ludicrous to suggest there’s a correlation.
From the beginning, many in government showed more concern for the economy than our lives, so their inaction shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But the public need to reject the notion they’ve been ‘trying their hardest’, and not fall for headlines that tell us ‘they’re doing their best for us in an impossible situation’. They’re not, and never have been.
They’ve been demonstrably dishonest at every turn, to the point where many are doubting whether Johnson’s own COVID-19 illness was exaggerated, or even staged to garner sympathy and avoid scrutiny. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and wrote my own opinions on his illness at the time, but these claims are nonetheless significant — what does it say about his reputation? Should it be this easy to imagine that the Prime minister, a man who hid in a fridge to avoid scrutiny, would stoop so low?
Social media is abound with claims they have, from the beginning, shown total and deliberate disregard for the lives of the vulnerable, of our working class and key workers. That there have been significant instances of incompetence is obvious to anyone paying attention. But these more serious claims are getting harder to refute. This is the climate in which we must now assess their newest slogan.
First there were the VE day celebrations. Anyone who turned to their phones for a distraction from the lockdown would have scrolled through one poster after another urging street parties — socially distant, ‘Stay at Home’ parties, of course. But with our neighbours. In the street.
Two meters is the ‘safe’ distance when two people are still. Common sense is enough to realise that if you’re quickly moving into the space left by another, the distance needs to be greater. The science backs this up, but while Germany offer its citizens this advice, we get conga lines on the BBC.
VE day is of course the celebration of a victory, where the enemy was in Europe — too politically beneficial for the architects of Brexit to explicitly ban. But is this their only motivation for allowing a public on lockdown to throw street parties? At the same time, headlines spoke of rumours that a significant relaxation of restrictions was imminent. Was this a coincidence?
We now have the changing of their official lockdown slogan. Stay at Home, Save Lives was probably the only thing they got right during this whole epidemic. It’s a clear message: one simple act, one simple, desirable outcome. Perfect. But now it’s to become Stay Alert. Nicola Sturgeon says she doesn’t know what it even means. But then she isn’t meant to. It’s been changed because it was too clear.
Johnson tentatively admitted his government were considering the strategy of allowing the disease to ‘move through the country’ on This Morning in March. They found the public didn’t respond well to the idea of ‘taking it on the chin’ and stopped admitting they ever considered ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy. But what’s changed?
They knew then that hundreds of thousands of us could die, and it was a risk they seemed willing to take. Now they tell us that those with manual, working class jobs should be ‘encouraged’ to return to work, to return to lining the pockets of the bosses and landlords most likely to be able to work safely from home. It feels like they did more than consider it; herd immunity by stealth is an alternative slogan I’ve seen used more than once.
Stay Alert is no different from Strong and Stable or Brexit Means Brexit. You can read competency and dedication into any of those slogans if you wish, but there are no commitments to which they can be held accountable.
If a government is determined to protect capital over lives, but understands the potential repercussions of their priorities being known, then what are their options? Communicating the rules of a lockdown so badly it collapses without government consent, feels like one. Any subsequent rise in deaths can be blamed on our non-compliance as individuals.
Obviously I can’t be certain this is what they’re doing — there’s an abundance of equally compelling evidence to support their catastrophic ineptitude being to blame. But either way, if there’s a second spike on its way we can be certain they’ll wash their hands of all culpability. We can shoulder the blame, and the deaths, while they get on with making money.
But perhaps there are some limits to what they can get away with. For example, one possible problem may arise with the assumed compliance of the media. True, they can normally be relied upon — most major purveyors of news have a significant stake in the status quo, after all. And in relation to the coronavirus, the high standards they once held for other governments— how could the Italians have allowed this to happen to their own people? — have suddenly dropped to a very low bar now the UK’s death toll leaves Italy’s in its wake. Johnson gets to claim success with little opposition.
Populations can often be easily manipulated into supporting governments, especially if any risks are largely borne by particular sections of the working class, racial minorities, the disabled or single parents. And while the media may contain many genuinely decent people, too often they refuse to turn over rocks in fear of revealing something that upsets the comfortable view from their own balconies.
But now they have a larger than expected stake in the government getting this right. Aside from the virus caring little for their social class, the confusing messages affect them directly. First, they’re told they can’t see their own parents. Or then they can, but only one, but they’re not sure which one or when or where or for how long. Suddenly they they’re asking the right questions, and for once they want real answers.
I’ll never have a positive word to say about someone like Piers Morgan, but concede he stands a much better chance in changing the minds of large sections of society than commentators on the left.
The result could be a more widespread disapproval of a government’s handling of a situation than I’ve ever known. Social media is already full of English people wishing they lived in Scotland or Wales, where governments appear to be taking the threat more seriously.
Conversely, we have English Tory MPs calling for the abolition of the Welsh Parliament because they have to travel a bit further for a beach. The BBC lament the uppity disobedience of the devolved governments, suggesting Wales won’t be policing it if English viewers decide to flout Welsh lockdown rules for a jolly in the mountains.
The significance of devolution in the ‘United’ Kingdom has never been more sharply in focus, and growing numbers within the Celtic nations are grateful for the differences.
The Tory handling of this crisis has cost thousands of lives. It could be costing them the support of the media. And, when the dust settles, ultimately it could cost them the existence of their precious United Kingdom.