How Britain Sleepwalked Into Disaster
Jonathan Lis explores why a government which has presided over the deaths of more than 100,000 people can still be given the benefit of the doubt by the public
Last week saw the long-awaited milestone. The UK’s official COVID-19 death toll reached the symbolic number of 100,000: the highest in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world.
The chorus of anguish from ministers was predictable. And yet something, perhaps, was not.
We know that the UK has suffered particularly badly. We know that most countries have done better. We know that some nations – such as New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea – have avoided a serious hit altogether. But still there is no sign of widespread discontent. In certain polls, the Conservatives still boast a marginal lead.
In recent years, British voters have shown their discontent about multiple issues. They were angry about the Iraq War, perceived government overspending, sovereignty and immigration.
Why do they seem so calm that a Government’s negligence has now caused 100,000 of them to die?
Government Failure After Failure
The first answer is: the Prime Minister. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson held a press conference to mark the grisly number. His hair was uncombed but manner contrite: he offered his “deepest condolences”, he said, for the people who had lost their lives. His Government had done “everything we could” to reduce the number of deaths. Once the pandemic was over, we would “make sure we learn the lessons and reflect”.
When challenged on the fact that 100,000 was five times the Government’s projection, Johnson simply reiterated his talking points. This was the moment not for hard questions but sombre reflection – effectively, using 100,000 deaths as a shield to deflect responsibility for them.
The political message of the occasion was explicit: nothing more could have been done to save those lives. However dreadful, it was simply one of those things. This was gaslighting on an unprecedented scale.
The Government has presided over a litany of failures for the past year. In February and March, Johnson skipped the early crisis meetings, suggested we might “take it on the chin”, boasted of shaking hands with COVID-19 patients, then failed to sign up to an EU ventilator procurement and lied about it.
Officials briefed the message of ‘herd immunity’ without a vaccine. As the pandemic gained momentum, the Government failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to doctors, nurses and carers, leading to many of them dying (and perhaps thousands in their care). It suspended ‘Test and Trace’ during the most vital early stage, ruling out any chance to contain the virus. The Government lied that it was a question of utility – later admitting that it was about capacity. Ministers kept borders open, without quarantine, while the country was locked down.
Once the first wave was over, Test and Trace suffered months of dysfunction, while the Government mixed its messaging over masks and delayed their compulsory introduction. It failed to support those isolating. It bribed people to sit in restaurants. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock boasted about throwing “a protective ring around care homes” and Johnson blamed those homes for not following guidance – when the disaster was they had followed it exactly.
Sometimes the scandals have been about cronyism and the misuse of billions of pounds. Sometimes they have related to the spread of the Coronavirus, as with the repeated failures to lock down when advised. Sometimes, as with the Dominic Cummings affair, they have sacrificed public trust at the worst possible moment.
Throughout, the Government has insisted that it took all the right decisions and nothing else could be done.
At first, Johnson likened the Coronavirus to an “invisible mugger” that caught us unawares. Then, in the summer, he told the public to go out and enjoy themselves, letting them take responsibility for what was to follow. Now, of course, it is the fault of the new variant. Indeed, Johnson currently talks up the virus rather than downplaying it. The other day he suggested that the new strain might be more deadly as well as more transmissible, even though the scientists he was citing said that they were not yet convinced of their own data.
This new strategy is clear: if more people can blame the virus, fewer will blame the Government’s mismanagement of it. In truth, the Coronavirus pandemic has known only one constant: whatever happens, Johnson is not to blame.
Lack of Media & Political Scrutiny
Boris Johnson, of course, cannot control the narrative single-handedly – he requires the media to help him. The morning after his briefing on the more than 100,000 deaths, the right-wing newspapers duly featured a mournful Prime Minister on the front page, head bowed in tribute to the dead.
A virus is not like a war, with tangible villains and errors. It can be portrayed as a natural disaster, against which the Government is ‘doing its best’.
Rightly or wrongly, broadcasters have focused their coverage on the human toll of the catastrophe and the immediate political responses to it. They have not devoted as much time to examining why other countries have fared better or how the Government explicitly defied scientists’ advice. News bulletins have to focus on the news and a bigger picture over weeks and months can get lost in the noise. When broadcasters have analysed the failures in detail, it doesn’t seem to have cut through in the public imagination.
Britain is a small ‘c’ conservative country with a large ‘C’ Conservative print media. Its interests are aligned with the Government’s. On the rare occasions that the media has attacked Johnson, it has not sought to promote the Labour Party, but internal rivals such as Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove. If Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed any other Labour leader since Tony Blair had been in charge, it is highly unlikely that the media would be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
But of course this is also about political opposition. While Labour Leader Keir Starmer has stepped up his attacks in recent weeks and diverged from Government policies – striking a tougher and earlier line on lockdowns – his policies have, for much of the pandemic, echoed Johnson’s. Labour’s criticisms have more often targeted the Conservatives’ competence than their overall direction. When Starmer has noted the underlying cause of so many deaths – poverty and inequality – he has frequently lacked the passion or vigour to encourage more public indignation.
None of this is necessarily a bad strategy. Labour is in office in Wales, which has also suffered heavily from the virus, and Starmer sensed early on that the public would rally behind the Government in a moment of crisis. Nevertheless, he has made it harder to mount a comprehensive attack on ministers’ decision-making – and that may have bled into wider public attitudes.
All along, the Government has nurtured two main narratives: that the Coronavirus death toll could not be avoided, and that the public was to blame. Both seem to have cut through.
Ministers installed the public as a fall guy from the start. In the spring, people were attacked for walking dogs and sunbathing. In the summer, they were blamed for going out (thus spreading the virus) and staying in (freezing the economy).
And yet, the most important part is not that the Government has blamed the public, but that it has made the public blame each other. The constant emphasis on adhering to the rules has sustained a discourse in which it is ordinary individuals responsible for bringing the disaster on themselves, not the Government for mishandling the crisis at every turn. A recent Savanta ComRes poll showed that 53% of those surveyed blamed the public the most for the rise in cases, compared with 33% who blamed the Government.
Of course, different questions yield different results. A YouGov poll last week found that 66% of those surveyed believed that the Government “had not done everything it reasonably could”. And, certainly, wider polling speaks for itself: since April, the 25-point Conservative lead over Labour has shrunk to level pegging or a small Tory deficit.
The puzzle is not that voters are satisfied with the Government; it is that they are not actively furious with it.
Perhaps, in the end, people are exhausted, and also dissociating. The virus has been so traumatic that it has numbed us to the wider context of daily events and we are simply focused on getting through it.
But it does not make a lie true: Britain’s fate was not an act of God or sad inevitability – it could have been avoided. In any other situation, a government which caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths would collapse under the weight of raw public fury. In this country, today, we say that it did its best and consider re-electing it.
The UK’s disproportionate death toll is the product of a Government that repeatedly downplayed the Coronavirus, confused its messaging and defied scientific advice.
Boris Johnson wants us to believe nothing else could have been done. No British Prime Minister has told a greater lie.
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