Leighton Andrews explores the consequences of the Prime Minister’s empty rhetoric on how to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic

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The rhetoric of war has underpinned the Government’s view of COVID-19 since the beginning. “We must act like any wartime Government”, the Prime Minister said on 17 March.

The latest figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University suggests that the UK – largely because of England – has proportionately the highest death rate in the world. If we’re in a war, we aren’t winning. 

Many sensible people have suggested that the language of war is not appropriate. But, since that has been the Government’s rhetoric of choice since the beginning of the pandemic, let’s take it at face value.

If we are in a war, what is its aim? What was the point of lockdown? Why is social distancing being eased?

Let’s go back to the beginning – before lockdown began on 23 March. 

On 20 March, the Prime Minister said his objective in respect of the Coronavirus was “by eliminating it, to stamp it out”.

Many of us entered lockdown hoping that the Government’s strategy was indeed the elimination of the virus; that lockdown would buy us time; that systems would be in place by the end of lockdown to ensure that we would get to the point where we could do rather more than “control the virus”. 

Eliminating the virus has not featured in the Government’s strategy since then.

The word cannot be found in messages about easing lockdown. Instead, our “victory over this virus” – announced by the Prime Minister on 23 June – is that the NHS was not overwhelmed in any of the nations of the UK.

It is good news that it wasn’t overwhelmed and this was a reasonable, important objective. But was that really the aim of the war? What happened to elimination?

On 20 March, the Prime Minister said: “We are going to do it with testing. We are going to do it with new medicines, and with new digital technology that will help us to see the disease as it is transmitted, and thereby, by eliminating it, to stamp it out.”

These were the things that were going to ‘turn the tide’ against the Coronavirus within three months, to send it “packing” within 12 weeks.

We now know that, in England, there isn’t an effective test, trace and protect strategy. Thankfully, governments in Wales and Scotland have been more cautious and, in Northern Ireland, they have the Republic of Ireland’s systems to borrow. Until recently, national testing results weren’t even being shared with local government. As for the new digital technology, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock’s half-baked app didn’t make it out of beta.

Forced to go into lockdown when it looked like he might preside over half a million deaths, the Boris Johnson made great claims about eliminating the virus but never had any strategy in place that could actually deliver that elimination.

And now he has had to “squeeze that brake pedal” as it has become apparent that the virus is going nowhere. But it is not a squeezing of the brake pedal, it is a handbrake turn. 

There is no military strategy or war aim. There is no plan.

Squash the sombrero; whac-a-mole; operation last gasp; squeeze the brake pedal: these are tactics, not a strategy. What’s next – jerk the steering wheel? Boy racer Johnson needs to learn that Bunteresque jolly japes won’t get us out of this crisis.

It is no wonder that polling shows that people lack confidence about returning to work, school or nursery. Pig out to help out won’t work without public confidence that the Government knows what it is doing. Trust is low, for good reason: no one knows what the Government’s strategy is.

Elimination was not the point of lockdown. It was never the Government’s aim. There isn’t one.

Leighton Andrews is Professor of Public Leadership and Innovation at Cardiff University. He is a former Welsh Government Minister and a former Head of Public Affairs at the BBC. His most recent book was ‘Facebook, the Media and Democracy’


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