Sunday’s announcement from Boris Johnson was a false dawn from a false prophet. It appears he has learned nothing from going into lockdown too late to save thousands of lives and he intends to compound that blunder by taking us out far too early. This is a man revelling in his own ineptitude.
Despite the table thumping moments, Johnson’s wish to play the grand statesmen fell characteristically flat. His muddled message was a confused confection of wishful thinking and optimistic daydreaming based more on his need to get the country out of lockdown than any real evidence that it is safe to do so. It was yet another example of a man elevated to a position well beyond his ability. He was simply seeking out those halcyon days when he could garner the warm glow of populism from a swish of his candy floss coiffure and some meaningless calls to the plucky British spirit.
Good news vs reality
This was a script written days ago, its writers less concerned with reality and more with a need for good old Boris to give us some good old news. Fanciful references to “numbers coming down sharply” are not born out by the actual data.
Yes there have been peaks and troughs, but the average number of new cases and deaths have fairly static over the last week. The 8th May saw one of the highest levels of infection on record. This is not an indication that we have passed any sort of peak, just that we’re keeping it in check by virtue of the emergency measures. Indeed, similar figures have been the impetus for many countries going into lockdown rather than a leap in the other direction. And a leap is exactly how these new plans can be described. A leap of faith and in many ways a leap into the abyss with very little detail on what awaits us at the bottom.
Johnson’s speech was peppered with nebulous graphics. Coloured sliders and virus-ometers suggested the air of a game show where the prizes are human lives. One particularly misleading graph of the infection was helpfully coloured in red for the period where infections initially grew and blue for supposed good times ahead. I’m sure there was not even a hint of subliminal messaging there!
A traffic light system akin to the DEFCON response to war and terrorism threats was also featured, although this was sometimes a dial, they couldn’t quite make their minds up. Neither was exactly an original idea but the concept was one that makes sense to people who have only ever planned for more tangible threats like war.
The most dangerous aspect of the new advice is this confused messaging. The ‘stay at home’ message has now be supplanted by a call to ‘stay alert’. Quite what we’re supposed to stay alert for seems to have been lost in the minds of whatever bonkers focus group came up with this nonsense. This was a message seemingly cut and pasted from similar responses to terrorist threats, as if we all need to watch out for the evil COVID-19 virus sporting a beard and a backpack on the central line.
Maybe ‘stay vigilant’ would have worked better, but I doubt they got that far into the thesaurus. Number 10 needed something to put on the podium for the next interminable, and by now largely pointless, daily update. The expense accounts lunch was beckoning and they’d already ordered the green ink.
So what are the rules now? Largely its interpretation.
Work at home if you can. Unless you can’t, which is apparently now your decision. If you do go to work, avoid public transport. Which is fine if you’re able to do that, but what if you’re not? Johnson doesn’t say. He encourages the use of walking and cycling, but the main advice is to use your car. So it’s back to gridlock in the morning, probably even more so if we’re all still supposed to be social-distancing.
Workplaces are called on to make themselves safe and to provide PPE, despite the fact that the government has made it quite obvious that those materials are sparser than a Donald Trump hair follicle. But then again after buying hundreds of thousands of useless gowns from Turkey and turning down numerous offers from UK companies eager to supply PPE to their home market, I suppose it won’t be difficult to do a better job than Johnson’s government have managed so far.
There were plenty of other ‘jam tomorrow’ promises in Mini-me -Churchill’s announcement though. Schools are to start to open in June. Of course the fact that teachers’ unions have said this is probably impossible is of course a mere detail. Many teachers are still self-isolating as are other support staff, but this couldn’t get in the way of Johnson’s hopeful homily. The fact that those parents who have decided (or been told) that they can no longer work at home will now be stuck between a rock and hard place also seems to have slid under the government’s radar.
We also heard that July is being set for the opening up of hospitality premises, neatly ignoring the non-sequitur that hospitality is almost the exact opposition of social distancing and will force many people on low wages to put themselves back on the viral firing line.
We did finally have an announcement on the quarantining of people coming into the UK by air. Something most other countries imposed before they imposed their lockdowns, which in themselves were imposed weeks before we were told to simply wash our hands and sing happy birthday. Not so much bolting the stable door as ripping it from its hinges and waving it as symbol of futility.
All this is little more than whistling in the dark. It’s the logic of a man who thinks that because his headache has got better since he stopped banging his head against the wall, he no longer needs a crash helmet.
Of course the impact on the economy and other important aspects of our lives is massive, but the virus isn’t going to be dissuaded from it’s relentless path by some warm words of nationalism and a snappy flowchart or two.
“This is a dangerous time for all of us”
There are people, like me, who aren’t planning to emerge from personal isolation any time soon. But there are also people who will take this message and the orgasmic headlines in the popular press as a signal to resume partying. Indeed there have already been stories of increased traffic on the roads and more people out on the streets.
The authorities struggled in the early days of the lockdown to enforce nebulous rules about social distancing in parks and other public places. Johnson’s announcement about being able to sit in the park and sunbathe won’t help that. Yes he announced increased fines for infringements of the rules, but the police are already struggling to manage the current regulations, whatever they are.
This is a dangerous time for all of us now. Especially if this is the precursor to the removal of government support for programmes like the furlough scheme or other important business funding arrangements. Yes these things must be agonising for a Tory government who hates giving anything to anyone for what they perceive as nothing, but we are only in this situation due largely to their lack of investment in the past, not least in the NHS and social care.
This is a move born of overconfidence and hubris as many of the emergency health measures that were hastily constructed have so far remained largely unneeded. But we could still easily be heading for much more than the feared ‘second spike’ in infections. I believe we’re about to open the floodgates on a disease that we’ve only slowed in its tracks, not stopped. Given that the current R-rate is only just under the important 1.0 level, now is not the time to be talking about relaxation. It took long enough for the government messaging to crystallise into something clear and understandable. Messing with that now is pure recklessness.
There will be no real respite until and unless we can find an effective long term vaccine. Without that we will be living with this threat for years, if not generations. Woolly words from a woolly-headed PM will not help us control infection in the meantime, especially in the face of one of the worst death tolls in the world as a result of poor management of the crisis from the beginning.
Johnson warned that the government wouldn’t hesitate to ‘put on the brakes’ if they saw the infection rate rising, but if you send a train hurtling down a slope towards oblivion, putting on the brakes may prove a lot harder than anyone imagines. That light at the end of the tunnel could well turn out to be an express train coming straight at us with Boris in the driving seat. Anyone who wants to survive the next phase of this crisis would do well to stay off the tracks, if indeed they can.