Monday 22 February 2021

Boris Johnson's Russian Roulette

Last week we heard how Boris Johnson was resisting pressure from his backbenchers to open everything up. Had he caught a bit of caution and drawn appropriate conclusions after the third national lockdown and 120,000 dead? Not a bit of it. At his address in the Commons on Monday afternoon, we definitively learned all schools and colleges are to open on 8th March. No phased return, just home Covid tests, masks for some pupils, and the return of the fines for parents who refuse to comply. 10 million kids back school, mixing, and then returning home. Clairvoyance isn't required to forecast the result of this ridiculous big bang approach to education.

Then we have the other steps. The rule of six returns on 29th March for outdoor meeting and socialising. 12th April sees non-essential retail opening, alongside outdoor attractions, gyms and swimming pools, but the rules on social mixing still apply. 17th May sees outdoor social contact rules lifted with hospitality and hotels opening up, and finally 21st June marks the end: no more restrictions. Because, by then, Coronavirus will have respected the government's timetable and done the decent thing by disappearing. Johnson said matters would be kept under review and implementation of subsequent stages delayed if this was what the data suggested, but we know what this means: more dithering, more delaying, more nothing. How many unnecessarily died because the country was late into all three of its quarantine measures, and how many more are going to be killed by this government's indifference to the data and determination to stick by its arbitrary timetable?

It's not just about deaths or serious disease. With the old largely protected and the voter base secure, entirely coincidentally the rest of the population can take their chances until they have their jabs. Some will die, and the R number is set to ramp right up, but these are acceptable losses. And here lies the risk. Thanks to Tory recklessness which merrily left the virus to circulate in late Summer and Autumn, the even more infectious Boris variant emerged and has become the dominant version of Covid in this country. This act of careless stupidity has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. Allowing schools and colleges back with little restriction gives infection a new lease of life and, just like last time, multiplies the chances of a harmful mutation emerging. With so much disease and millions of people not fully vaccinated, it's not difficult to imagine the emergence of a new strain that pays our Pfizers and our AstraZenecas no mind. And we're back to square one again: more restrictions, more lockdowns, more waits for a new treatment. Vaccines are essential for suppressing Covid but in the early phase of the roll out, it can't do the heavy lifting on its own. A magic bullet will not stop Johnson from playing Russian roulette with lives of tens of thousands.

Where does this reckless impulse come from? This impatience to get back to normal betrays Johnson's impestuous character and hurry to get on with his programme. But the urgency also has its roots in Tory anxieties about class relationships. Forced into the Job Retention Scheme, providing (limited) support for the self-employed, uprating Universal Credit, and suffering political damage for being beastly to the poor is not just what Toryism is about. Having successfully depoliticised the crisis and largely escaped sanction for the catastrophic failure they presided over, there is a danger of losing the post-Covid peace because of the expectations raised over the last year. The feeling we cannot carry on in the old way, the (temporary) decoupling of income from work, the importance of key workers, the huge sacrifices made by NHS staff, the life support for many businesses, the inadequacy of social security, the all-in-it-together solidarity fostered, and a mental heath crisis unlikely to disappear with the opening of the pubs are huge challenges for any government. "Johnsonism" and its talk of levelling up is only really a more Keynesian turn, with added arbitrary government interventions in the day-to-day. Is it capable of taking on the huge social challenges it faces?

No, therefore the haste to get back to normal is the hope these challenges might sort themselves out and/or not have the time to cohere around an oppositional politics. What are several tens of thousands of deaths, cases of long Covid, and the possibility of a vaccine-resistant variant against preserving a favourable political climate and returning to the balance of class forces as was before the pandemic? Mere trifles, confirmed each and every time Johnson condemns others to infection and disease.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

I wish the opposition would speak up like this. When did it start to be okay to be lame? When life got a bit easy perhaps?

Blissex said...

«I wish the opposition would speak up like this.»

The present article sadly still uses a thatcherite framing, the hard/soft lockdown choice, a framing that implies that it is the individualistic choice of self-isolation that matters, as summarised in "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives".

The correct argument, that public health problems are best solved with a public approach, with state funded and organized test-trace-isolate, has been made mostly by academics, including at the beginning of last year by the Chief Scientific Office and the Chief Medical Office, and recently for example in "The Guardian" (surprisingly) by prof. D Sridhar and S Reicher. But the Conservatives, LibDems, New New Labour are all committed to the principle that "statism" as in public projects are the first steps on the "road to serfdom", as in nasty socialist hellholes like south Korea or New Zealand :-).

Dipper said...

@ Blissex

'with state funded and organized test-trace-isolate'

Another group of people going look, a solution. Not in my area, but someone else's, over there. Track and Trace is impossible in a society like the UK. People have simply refused to co-operate.

China achieve success in Track and trace by having tags on people to record if they move out of their rooms, and welding shut the doors to apartment blocks.

Is it your view that the UK government should have imprisoned people who refused to co-operate? Should have forcibly restrained people?