Mon 25 October 2021

In ordinary times, the Prime Minister’s lack of focus and consistency would be dysfunctional. In a pandemic, it is lethal, says Jonathan Lis

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Boris Johnson’s ‘great unlocking’ speech came as England was preparing to play in the semi-final of a major championship. Euro 2020 has offered a moment of rare celebration after a year-and-a-half of despair. It feels tailor-made for a Prime Minister who thrives on national bombast and feel-good entertainment.

But any political capital for Johnson may prove short-lived. The nation is heading for the final, but it is also careering into a third Coronavirus wave. The Prime Minister has chosen the precise moment to abandon every restriction. From 19 July, we will have our ‘freedom’ and we will be on our own.

This is a story not just of a disease spiralling out of control, but an ego.

The Risk of Disaster

Johnson’s press conference announcing the end of restrictions in England was a characteristic disaster. In relation to reopening, he posed the binary question ‘if not now, when?’ – as though there were only two options between total freedom and total lockdown. He lied that there was always going to be a third wave, as if the spread of the Delta variant was somehow an act of God beyond his control.

Here is the irony of a man who craves both total power and total abrogation of responsibility: there are times when he must deny the control he actually has, even to himself.

Events have never been beyond the Prime Minister’s control. His failure to implement an effective quarantine policy allowed the Delta variant to circulate. Now his blanket reopening will allow it to infect, by the Government’s own admission, 100,000 people a day. The only reason there was bound to be a third wave is that Johnson has facilitated it.

Johnson wants us to be both careful and carefree; to remember that there is a pandemic and to forget it

The Prime Minister’s actions seem extraordinary on the most basic level. They are counter-intuitive to everything we know about the virus. In the past, we have unlocked when cases were falling. Seldom has any country done so while they are rising – and exponentially. COVID-19 cases are currently at their highest level since January. With a tiny fraction of the number, Sydney is currently entering a third week of lockdown.

It is true that vaccines have weakened the link between infections and hospitalisations or death, but have not eliminated it. The latest data from Israel suggests that the Pfizer vaccine only gives 64% efficacy against the Delta variant – much lower than initially thought. Even if most of the resulting cases will not lead to hospitalisation, the sheer volume will have a significant impact on long-term health and productivity.

And, yet, Johnson is not even giving his vaccine defence a proper chance. Less than two-thirds of the population is fully inoculated and millions who want to be still aren’t. The majority of these will be young people, who will now mix without curbs. Children, meanwhile, are not yet to be vaccinated at all.

The policy seems designed to impose ‘herd immunity’ on the population whether they like it or not – with the attendant risks of a new, deadlier variant, and widespread Long COVID. As the scientific advisor Stephen Reicher pointed out, it could mean 6,000 to 8,000 severe cases of Long COVID beginning each day.

Mixed Messaging, Failed Ideology

Perhaps the most inexplicable element of Johnson’s plan relates to masks. He has announced that they will no longer be compulsory in indoor public spaces and that it would be a matter of personal responsibility.

This makes no sense from an economic perspective, as it will deter vulnerable or anxious people from venturing out. It also makes no sense from a liberal philosophical perspective, as masks protect not the wearer but those around them. Shop workers, in particular, now have no choice but to put themselves at risk. There should be no automatic freedom to endanger one’s fellow citizens.

But the strangest element has been the lack of an effective message. He could have said “we will not force you to wear a mask but we will ask you to” or “masks are highly effective and, as cases rise, we strongly recommend them”. In the end, he simply fumbled over occasions where he would and wouldn’t wear one and repeatedly referred to sitting in an empty train carriage at night.

The troubling explanation is that the new regime appears to be designed to confuse people. The Prime Minister mentioned mask use and reminded people that the pandemic is ongoing, while refusing to implement any mitigating policies or explicit communication. This isn’t about our personal responsibility – it is about avoiding his.

Societies and shared spaces need common rules, and individuals cannot stop a deadly virus without government intervention. Johnson wants us to be both careful and carefree; to remember that there is a pandemic and to forget it. The Prime Minister isn’t giving us the personal responsibility to look after ourselves, but to contract and spread the virus. It is another manifestation of his policy from the beginning – to get the public to blame each other so that they never blame him.

But such contradictions are baked into his policies. In just six months, England will be going from having the tightest restrictions in Europe to the most relaxed. We are reopening now instead of waiting a few weeks for cases to flatten-off and for the vaccine roll-out to further advance. On one level, the Government simply has no idea what it is doing.

And yet this transcends mere incompetence. This is also about the character of the Prime Minister and the Government he leads.

The Johnson Variant

In some ways, it is quite easy to read Boris Johnson’s intentions on a personal level. As with last summer, he appears bored and tired of the pandemic. He wants it to be over so that he can go back to enjoying himself. He will do anything and everything necessary to distance himself from public opprobrium or political disadvantage, and places his survival above anyone else’s. But it also seems to go deeper.

Partly, it is about contradictory ideology. The lockdown policy has exposed a battle between the Conservatives’ authoritarianism and libertarianism mirrored in Johnson himself – even if the freedom that interests Johnson is, inevitably, his own.

This is also, in part, about maintaining the power and unity of the Conservative Party and promoting its needs above public health. According to the Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne, ministers are privately acknowledging that the mask mandate is being abandoned not for any grand commitment to freedom, but because the Government “no longer had the Tory votes to keep the measures in place” – and depending on Labour votes “would have been difficult” for the Prime Minister.

In another sense, it is not about ideology or politics at all. Johnson’s modus operandi is chaos – he cannot make a decision, tries to please opposing factions at the same time, and never sticks to anything. Because he has no beliefs but his own advancement, he is unable to commit to any long-term political strategy or goal.

As such, during the winter lockdown, people in England were not permitted to leave the country while anyone in the world could come here on holiday. The NHS’ vaccine roll-out is accelerating, while ‘Test and Trace’ is being effectively dismantled. And Johnson seemingly delayed India’s red-listing in order to avoid offending a new potential trade partner.

It makes perfect sense that the Government’s Coronavirus policies have constantly operated in opposition to each other. As his former chief advisor Dominic Cummings has described, Johnson’s Downing Street nickname is “the Trolley”, because he has no consistency, concentration or self-control. In ordinary times, it would be dysfunctional. In a pandemic, it is lethal.

Perhaps, in the end, we can find an answer in football. As the celebrations roared at Wembley, the England veteran Gary Neville contrasted Britain’s stewardship with the England football team’s. “The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” he said. “Looking at that man there [Gareth Southgate], that’s everything a leader should be: respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine.”

Under Southgate’s leadership, England has triumphed. Under Johnson’s, Britain stares down the barrel.


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