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With a government this bad in charge of the UK during Covid, how do we respond?

Posted at Jan 12, 2021

I ’m not often amazed by Any Answers?, since it’s a Radio 4 phone-in, and I can generate the opinions of the whole swathe of that listenership with some keyboard shortcuts in my head. But this weekend’s episode was the most brutal, moving and surprising I’ve ever heard. Half of the callers started crying, overwhelmed, as astonished as anyone to hear their own voice suddenly crack.

It was only sometimes about a death in the family; the other calls demonstrated something more like a steadily building desperation, and it all came back to the same point: we’ve known this would happen for months. We’ve known there would be a second wave; that schools would probably close and deprived children would need laptops and broadband; that the pressure on hospitals would be unbearable; that the economic hardship caused by a frozen economy was not just going to evaporate with the passing of time; that viruses don’t stop for Christmas. We knew all these things as surely as we knew that winter would be cold. Why did nobody plan for any of it?

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We are living under a government that is permanently surprised by events that are not just foreseeable but explicitly foreseen, and it fosters a desperation quite outside the usual run of criticism and scorn – something more like impotent dread. The precedent has been set, and never interrupted; anything they promise will evaporate. When it snows, they’ll run out of grit, they’ll blame local authorities, but it will transpire that grit procurement was an EU thing. The exams that don’t happen will be replaced with a system whose injustice sends everyone apoplectic, and there will be a U-turn, and it will be too late. Test and trace will never function properly. Regulations they promised never to consider will arrive pell-mell some time after they would have had an effect, and they will throw their hands up in astonishment that nothing works. In any given range of possible outcomes, the worst will transpire, and the cabinet will be shocked, shocked they tell you, right up until the year-old document marked “worst-case scenario” is leaked a week later, by which time they’ll be off the hook, engulfed in some other white swan event.

Naturally, when you choose a cabinet for their unquestioning loyalty to a questionable project, its quality will be low. The leadership model evolving from that is a group of ministers who were inadequate to begin with, serving entirely at the prime minister’s pleasure, which means the difficult questions are never asked, until the external world intrudes and demands an answer. It doesn’t help that all the competent institutions have been sidelined and discredited, nor that critical long-term planning is handed wholesale to donors, friends and relatives of an already struggling cadre.

None of this helps, but nor does it comprehensively explain the tragic spectacle of these endless pratfalls. They are the stopped clock that is always wrong; they defy comprehension. The terror they engender is not of any single outcome, but the sense that, with this level of unpreparedness, the crisis will never end. There has been a noticeable drop off in media coverage of other countries; you don’t see many graphs of Scandinavia any more. This is not just because, right now, we’re suffering the worst per capita infection rates in the world – it is also a fear of the future, that we’ll watch as every other nation climbs out of its predicament with measures that we should also have been capable of, yet somehow weren’t, until eventually, the whole world is New Zealand, while we’re still here.

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So it’s time to revisit some of the assumptions of a year ago: it was reasonable, at the start of this crisis, to put aside catcalling and try to find some unity in the face of a shared foe. This is no longer the case: to follow the government anywhere, looking for common ground, will just suck you into its quagmire. Classic political manoeuvres, such as calling for an action you can see they’ll have to take soon anyway, don’t work when the efficacy of any measure has been undermined in advance by the delay in taking it.

There was once a presumption of remorse as an important backstop in politics; the belief that a minister would have his or her own standards of consistency and honesty, and if they fell short, their own perception of public or elite disapprobation would be enough to shame them out of office. Implicitly, we no longer rely on that: when Gavin Williamson parades his incompetence, or Priti Patel is exposed as a bully, we no longer wonder why they don’t resign of their own accord. We only ever ask: “Why aren’t they sacked?” Rather that simply accept this shamelessness as our new reality, we have to think about what it means tactically. There is no point in combing through their bins, looking for evidence of inadequacies they’re perfectly happy to reveal.

Instead, both political and civic opponents – which covers an increasing amount of ground, from businesses poleaxed by post-Brexit chaos, to scientists who can see themselves being lined up to take the fall, even as they deliver their advice – should focus on the one thing the government demonstrably cannot do: forward planning.

Look to the future, and scaffold the hell out of it: scorch the earth for austerity 2.0. Demand the gratitude to NHS and other key workers, when all this is over, be visible in pay packets. Force a new social contract on homelessness and rents. The only way to be insulated from a government that exists in a permanent state of shock is to author the shock ourselves. Be the surprise we want to see in the world.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist