Friday, 17 April 2020

Car crash politics

THE UK government’s handling of the virus pandemic has been breath-takingly incompetent at almost every stage. It may sound harsh but when the facts are reviewed it is not hard to reach such a conclusion.

Johnson and his cabinet have always claimed they are being “led by science” not politics. But many scientists who are not in the government’s inner circle have voiced serious concerns and expressed alternative views.

And what exactly is scientific about having no mass testing? A lack of personal protection equipment for NHS staff? No protection for our care homes? And no social distancing for seven weeks after the first case of coronavirus was reported in the UK?

Italy, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan, China, South Korea all introduced measures at an early stage to try and contain the spread of coronavirus. In the UK, Johnson’s initial response was, “Take it on the chin.”

The government's daily press conferences and media interviews by ministers have largely become an enraging exercise in fluent, complacent, platitudinous stonewalling. No answers to important questions, just evasive promises along the lines that everything will improve sometime soon.

Much of it boils down to a government that fundamentally objects to scrutiny -  the Commons has sat for one full month in Johnson’s first 10 as premier. And one of the reasons for this is because it is founded on political ideologies. For a decade it hasn’t valued or protected the people the country depends on, and it has spent years weakening the NHS and social care. Now, faced with the real world, it is struggling to accept its own culpability.

Why, for example, are there still around 15,000 people a day flying into the UK. That's the equivalent of 105,000 passengers a week, including those flying in from countries with their own serious Covid-19 outbreaks, like the US, China, Spain and Italy.

Even America has banned entry for people from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, whereas the UK has no such limits in place and deems it not important to impose health checks or a period in quarantine on people arriving at UK airports.

It seems increasingly apparent that this is a single-pony, Brexit-driven government with no script or comprehension for serious subjects, and is at its flagrant happiest when dishing out slogan politics.

A lamentable conclusion to draw from the UK government’s overall handling of the crisis so far is that its approach has appeared largely reactive and laissez faire, at least on the surface. In the corridors of money and power, however, there may be more sinister political forces at work.

In recent days it has seemed disingenuous for ministers to repeatedly infer that the British public are not capable of engaging in or understanding a proper debate about how a Covid-19 exit strategy is going to be managed in the weeks to come? As a result, one might also be inclined to conclude that UK plc currently has no plausible lock-down exit strategy.

If anything, public compliance with the lock-down has been more solid than anticipated and there is no evidence that people will stop complying if ministers start talking openly about how and when some restrictions might be lifted. Democracy entails debate.

Inspite of Covid-19, the government has also been adamant it sees no reason to change its looming Brexit trajectory, even though we’re less than nine months away from the transition period ending with no future trade terms in place.

The consequences of such a final EU departure are now magnified in economic terms because they will come on top of the grisly impact of the pandemic, as outlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) this week.

The government’s proposition is that, despite a predicted (albeit possibly short term) 35 percent fall in GDP, a rise in unemployment to maybe three million and annihilation of public finances, it remains the inviolable “will of the people” to add the effects of Brexit (with or without a deal) to the devastation being wrought by the virus pandemic.

As the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put it earlier this week in advising an extension - “why make a tough situation even tougher?” With coronavirus still rampant and economies tanking there are surely no rational arguments against agreeing an extension to allow time for a proper trade deal.

As summer 2020 unfolds, the days and weeks ahead will shine an ever more critical spotlight on Johnson and his egalitarian government’s handling of the pandemic. And it may yet prove to be one of the most egregious and catastrophic failures of democratic leadership in our lifetime.

But given Johnson's shoddy and disingenuous performance on other issues - such as on Brexit, immigration policy and even his response to the devastating winter flooding across the UK - it can surely come as no surprise that the UK is rapidly staking claim to be the poor man of Europe when it comes to its abject handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Sunday Times (19 April 2020) -  38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

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