I’m confused. And I feel a bit less safe than I did a week and a half ago. I know I’m not the only one.
Cracks in the Shield
I have mentioned before that I am one of the people to have been classified as “extremely vulnerable” to coronavirus and so I’m one of the so-called “shielding” group. The initial guidance letter on 23rd March advised us to stay at home at all times for a minimum of 12 weeks: not even to leave the house for exercise or for getting food or medicines. (There were 2 copies in quick succession, from my GP and my current “overseeing” hospital.) The original guidance even recommended packing a hospital bag, just in case, including contact details for next of kin: a bit scary to receive this at the time!
For most of the next 10 weeks, there was nothing at all from gov.uk or the “NHS Coronavirus Service”: we were left just to get on with it ourselves. Many in more challenging circumstances than I felt even more abandoned: a recent edition of Woman’s Hour has some actual case studies. (The relevant audio starts around 16 minutes into this audio clip on BBC Sounds.) Over this period, I first convinced myself that our (sheltered) garden was as safe as the house – subsequently confirmed by my hospital consultant. Then, I felt safe doing short (30 minute) walks from home for exercise: I see very few people in our rural area and those I do see all keep apart well over the 2m distancing rules.
Then, unexpectedly, on 19th May, a third letter arrived from another hospital where I had treatment in 2018, carrying roughly the same words but extending the lockdown period by 15 days to 30th June. Just four or five days later, even more unexpectedly, Johnson announced a relaxation of the lockdown rules for us shielders along with relaxations for the wider public.
Frankly, I’m deeply, deeply suspicious about this change of government guidance. The relaxations of the lockdown rules (in England), coupled with widespread flouting of them on beaches and at beauty spots in last weekend’s sunshine, potentially makes the “world out there” a less safe place. So I’m ignoring what Johnson said and I’m relying on more trusted sources (e.g. Independent SAGE and selected “experts” via trusted media) and carrying on much as before.
Cracks in the Lockdown
Johnson and his gang of zealots and idiots (a.k.a. HM Government) were beginning to lose their tenuous grip even before the “Cummings Lockdown Tour” of Durham and Barnard Castle was made public by the Guardian and Daily Mirror.
Several events have now occurred to undermine the government’s position – and our trust – even further.
- Cummings’ Rose Garden press conference was a load of self-interested preposterous bullshit which revealed even more actions in which he had broken the rules.
- The pathetic, craven, orchestrated defences of Cummings’ position by about 50% of the Cabinet simply destroyed any vestige of respect for the individuals concerned.
- Johnson’s ill-judged defence of Cummings exposed him to a wider audience as weak, lacking judgement and, together with the previous point, strongly reinforced the message: “one law for us and another for everyone else”.
- The many tales of raw emotion from those willing to tell their stories of self-sacrifice for the common good added a potent emotional impact to the narrative of hypocrisy and elitism.
For those tempted, or inclined, to “bend” the rules, “doing a Cummings” quickly became a source of self-justification. Key scientific opinion warned that England was easing lockdown restrictions too soon. There is widespread unease in public opinion too.
The previously announced change from the clear “stay at home” to the vaguer “stay alert” message started the rot and provoked much derision at the time. It’s been downhill for government credibility ever since.
So, we’ve just had a torrid couple of weeks when the government has totally lost whatever trust I had in them. I treat every single policy change with suspicion. Any so-called facts and figures from government sources I now double-check from other reliable sources of information. The daily (or now, weekdaily) government briefings have been reduced to propaganda exercises, with fiddled figures and disappearing graphs of international comparisons when they no longer served Johnson’s propaganda purposes.
A whole raft of announcements following the 25th May rose garden fiasco were made in the next few days, each one intended to provide “good news” in a desperate attempt to move the news agenda away from Cummings’ misdeeds:
- Johnson’s bungled “return to work but not by public transport tomorrow or maybe Wednesday” announcement
- The reopening of schools to years R, 1 and 6, which came as a surprise to those working in education and leaving too little time to prepare. The rationale for choosing reception and year 1 children as well as (the expected) year 6 has never been satisfactorily explained by the government.
- Exactly the same pattern has been repeated in the announcement about the return of dentistry on Monday next. Dentists are complaining that they have had insufficient time to prepare. And what else? Sound familiar? Problems for dentists with getting sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
- Relaxations on socialising (meetings of up to 6 people in gardens as well as parks) are basically unenforceable, making it much easier to disobey them. A recipe for increasing the virus spread, I would say.
- The much-publicised “track and trace” was “launched” last Thursday. Everybody except government knows this was a sham and the scheme will be up and running properly somewhere between the end of June and October, depending on your optimism. It’s the same old centralised-run scheme using private contractors such as Capita who in turn use unskilled staff with too little training. The promised NHS app, fanfared at the start of its trial on the Isle of Wight, has vanished out of sight for now. Rumours have it that it’s not working properly.
- And for us shielding folk? The relaxations of the rules came as a complete surprise to NHS staff and to charities supporting people with the relevant pre-existing conditions. There has been no medical evidence whatsoever to justify the change. We’re meant to take it on trust. Which leaves us feeling confused and more vulnerable.
The new rules for England, unlike Wales and Scotland, do not specify a maximum distance people are allowed to travel – hence the crowded scenes at the weekend on our beaches and beauty spots.
Scientists and government advisers are increasingly distancing themselves from government policy announcements. Do you believe that R (the reproduction rate) will stay below 1.0? I’m far from convinced.
I simply don’t trust anyone in Johnson’s rabble. It seems to me to be a basic requirement for a functioning democracy that citizens trust their government in times of crisis. Johnson and company fail on all counts.
So I find everything the government says and does delusional. If I hear another Government Minister say the words “world beating” I shall scream! Here’s one thing we’re world beating at. On Wednesday, deaths from coronavirus in the UK (359) were greater than for all of the EU27 countries combined (311). Here’s the graph:
Full story here. And besides, why would we even want to beat the rest of the world on anything to do with the pandemic? Surely, if ever there was a time for global cooperation, for example in developing a vaccine, it’s now.
An Old, Old Enemy
So what underlies all this? I think it’s another manifestation of our old enemy, English Exceptionalism. To the rest of the world, with our plans to leave the EU, the chimera of “Global Britain” and so much more, we’re even more of a laughing stock. People in other countries pity us. Here are just a few examples:
- An Irish viewpoint
- An EU-wide perspective from 2017 (related to the UK’s relationship with the EU and the Leave vote)
- An academic perspective from 1997
- A US viewpoint from Politico (2020)
- Our failure to learn lessons from Italy’s experience from last month
- And, lastly, a recent viewpoint from that august organ, the Financial Times.
Countless further examples are out there on the internet of the degree of contempt in which the UK is held around the world. It’s demeaning, it’s embarrassing – and it has to stop.
The message gets clearer all the time. If you don’t care whether your granny dies prematurely, carry on voting Conservative. Keep your illusions. It’s just that they’re getting more lethal by the minute.
Or… The case for a Government of National Unity, with Keir Starmer in a key role, gets stronger by the minute. Then there would be at least one grownup in charge.