When it comes to the Coronavirus crisis, the Prime Minister is making sure the buck doesn’t stop with him – backed by a lifetime’s experience in deflection
Boris Johnson is a man with a lifelong habit of avoiding taking responsibility for his actions.
After making up quotes during a traineeship at The Times, Johnson still scaled journalism to become the editor of the Spectator magazine and, ultimately, a £275,000 a-year columnist at the Telegraph.
Even when he seemingly abetted the attempts of a close friend to beat up a journalist, he faced no repercussions, aside from a casual reprimand.
After Johnson failed to undertake even basic constituency responsibilities in Henley – while he was the MP for the area – between 2001 and 2008, his career in public office was barely curtailed. As we all know, the old Etonian became the Mayor of London, before returning to the House of Commons in 2015 and rising quickly to the top of government.
In more recent history, his insinuation that Muslim women who wear the burka are akin to “bank robbers” didn’t stop him from becoming Conservative Party leader. And habitually avoiding the press didn’t prevent him from winning a general election, by a landslide margin.
So Johnson is well trained for his current task: to limbo under any responsibility for one of the most catastrophic failures of any Prime Minister in the history of the office.
Too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures.Prime Minister Boris Johnson
As Byline Times has documented in these pages over recent months, a toxic combination of English exceptionalism, flawed scientific assumptions (to put it mildly), and a fundamental lack of preparedness wrought by a decade of austerity have landed the UK with the highest Coronavirus death toll in Europe.
But Johnson has never faced his failures and he is not about to start now. Instead, his quest to find scapegoats and to backtrack has started in earnest – and won’t stop until the Prime Minister believes he has dodged all responsibility.
Clamp for Carers
Having lauded them as ‘heroes’ throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this week the Government confirmed that free parking for NHS workers would be scrapped. A policy introduced at the onset of the crisis, it enabled doctors, nurses, carers and support staff in England to park at their workplace for free.
While this has all the hallmarks of another Johnson U-turn, it hints at the natural instincts of this Government.
When it suits Johnson and his Cabinet to deify NHS workers, they use every tactic imaginable, no matter how crass (see Matt Hancock’s NHS socks). However, when the doorstep applause dies down, this Tory administration returns to treating health workers with the same suspicion and borderline prejudice it seems to innately hold towards the vast majority of public sector occupations.
More overt has been Johnson’s attempt to pin the blame on care homes for the Coronavirus crisis that has engulfed their residents. On 6 July, the Prime Minister said that “too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures” when dealing with the virus – a wilful distortion of history if ever there was one.
The Government’s response to an upsurge in care home cases was bovine, to put it generously. As late as 12 March, just a week before Coronavirus cases spiked and the country went into the lockdown, the Government was continuing to insist that “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected”. It was also not until mid-April that the Health and Social Care Secretary Hancock changed the rules so that everyone returning to a care home from hospital had to be tested.
One in five Coronavirus patients caught the virus in hospital, according to papers produced by Government scientists, yet care home residents were allowed to ferry the virus into a high-risk setting for more than a month before the Government intervened.
Government guidance to the sector has come “in stops and starts, with organisations grappling with over 100 pieces of additional guidance,” says Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum.
According to official figures, which are a baseline, 16,000 people in UK care homes have died from the Coronavirus. 12,500 of these deaths had occurred by the beginning of May, yet weeks later the Government was still re-issuing guidance to the sector. It was too little, too late.
It is true that the social care sector is riddled with flaws. It is operated largely by private companies, some of which have been accused of underpaying and exploiting staff. However, Johnson’s Government has turned an exceptionally difficult job into a near-impossible one, and is now trying to shed the blame.
‘Following the Science’
But medical and healthcare professionals are not the only ones who have been pummelled by the Johnson blame game.
The Government’s own scientists have also been harpooned – collateral damage in the great effort to preserve the Prime Minister’s image.
Interviewed by Sky News last month, Health Minister Helen Whately let slip a new approach to the Government’s once-venerated public health experts. Challenged on the Government’s lack of guidance for care homes (a recurring problem), Whately attempted to hide behind the scientists, saying: “At all points in this we follow the scientific guidance as to what is the right thing to do.”
When it was suggested that Whately couldn’t “stick this on the scientists”, she replied: “Well, I can” – before rapidly insisting that wasn’t what she meant.
This reliance on scientists as human shields has been witnessed throughout the crisis.
From the very start, the Government insisted that it was “following the science”; a loose phrase that suggested scientists were themselves making Government policy. However, as has been insisted on multiple occasions by these same scientists, they merely present advice to ministers, who ultimately take the decisions.
When lockdown measures were first eased on 11 May, for example, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, made it patently clear who was behind the policy shift. “That’s why ministers and the Government have come to this decision,” he said in the daily Downing Street briefing.
But this low-level rebellion is the only resort for the likes of Whitty, prior to a full-blown resignation. Although they are meant to provide independent advice to the Government, he and his colleagues are civil servants and, in this capacity, compelled to blindly support the Government of the day. Open dissent of any nature is a form of mutiny. They must keep their traps shut while ministers order them to march over the trenches.
Health workers have similarly been muzzled – threatened with disciplinary action if they speak out against the Government’s strategy. This, it seems, has been a concerted effort to scapegoat those who can’t fight back.
That said, if all else fails, there’s still the good old British public to fall back on.
Of course a Government would never commit electoral suicide by blaming the public for the resurgence of a pandemic. However, ministers have successfully managed to shift the media spotlight away from their own failures and onto the behaviour of the public at large.
Entertain this: ever since Johnson updated his messaging from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, the Government’s guidance has been muddled, at best. Clairvoyance has only been apparent in the biggest drinking drive since the 2018 World Cup, with ministers hyping up the nation’s collective return to the pub on “Super Saturday”.
Hearing a message that equates to “you can drink yourselves silly as long as you wash your hands”, people have been flocking back to bars, restaurants and beaches. Questions of Government incompetence have thus been knocked off the tabloid front pages –replaced instead with images of red-chested hordes, grilling like sea lions in the summer sun. All the while, the Government has insulated itself with small print, which lays out a myriad of detailed restrictions. But who ever reads the small print?
Undoubtedly, this campaign of distraction and distortion has been effective. Despite having the worst ratio of Coronavirus deaths to cases in the world, the Conservatives are still riding high in the polls, and there’s not exactly a clamour to turf the Prime Minister out of Downing Street.
Johnson is pulling off the greatest deception of the modern era. He is sustaining his image as a bumbling, harmless aristocrat, but with a growing flock of sacrificial lambs needed to maintain the mirage.