Friday 14 May 2021

The Politics of Indecision

For a walking thesaurus, 'the precautionary principle' is a phrase never to have issued from Boris Johnson's verbose lips. That might have stood him well when he took the parliamentary party by the scruff of the neck back in the autumn of 2019, and used his leverage to shake down and expel MPs of the remain persuasion. But since March 2020, it has proved disastrous for the measured, data-led management of a global pandemic. This impatience, from locking down late in each of the three national quarantines to actively encouraging people to congregate last summer has meant the UK has been hit harder than comparable countries, and in absolute numbers of deaths still outstrips the rest of Europe. There are 127,668 reasons for why this government should be in the dock, but instead they're exonerated by the laurels of electoral triumph. With no punishment forthcoming, does the same old complacency bleed into the Tories' strategy for dealing with B.1.617.2 strain of Covid-19, known better as the Indian variant?

To ask the question is to answer it. While India was reeling under the first signs of its second wave, the government dithered about placing it on the red list. As Yvette Cooper rightly observed, neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the list two weeks prior to India, even though at that point both countries were not dealing with the same level of infections in relative terms. Clearly, there were ulterior motives in play, and in this case it was Johnson's scheduled visit to India to drum up trade and good headlines boasting of billions of pounds worth of this and that ahead of the local elections. And so the thousand cases of the variant reported in the UK are, once again, much larger than they would have been had the Tories put the biosecurity of the country first.

What wasn't done is done, though it again falls to someone other than Labour's front bench to articulate criticisms of the government's handling of the pandemic. As for where we are now, Johnson took to the podium 35 minutes late today to say the Indian variant is potentially worrisome and it might throw a wrench into the lifting of all restrictions come 21st June. In the mean time everything's going to carry on as if there isn't a poorly understood variant in circulation. That means household meet ups indoors, gatherings of up to 30 outside, no number checks on restaurants, pubs, and bars, and no requirement for indoor masks either. Considering how many have noted how outdoor rallies have played their part on the variant's spread in India, one might be forgiven for thinking there's an air of prematurity about this.

At Friday afternoon's briefing, Johnson was nevertheless concerned enough to announce the stepping up of the vaccine programme with Chris Whitty adding about how first jabs are going to be accelerated. This is all very well, but the general lack of preparedness does smack of keeping fingers crossed and hoping for the best. There was no news on formalising local measures where outbreaks flare up though, but don't worry. Cressida Dick has assured Londoners there will be more plod on the streets this weekend to reassure a public cowed by the Covid threat. As for the rest, past behaviour is already proving the best indicator of future behaviour. The factors that mean people can't isolate remains unaddressed. You know what these are - no support for large numbers of the self-employed, and bosses ordering staff into work from the comfort and safety of their at-home office. These were gaping holes in preceding lockdowns, and will carry on being so if the shutters have to come down again.

As ever, this is being driven by the politics. Having worked successfully to protect what really matters to the Tories - property investments, the wage relation - and so far avoiding responsibility for their irresponsibility, Johnson knows capital as a whole is desperate to return to the before time when they had things all their own way. There are the backbenchers too, twitchy about the nanny state nonsense and, for not a few of them, Covid represents nothing so more than a challenging case of the flu. And as for the Tory vote, he knows they, like everyone else, have lockdown fatigue. But is fully aware how mishandling the Indian variant with the possibility of a new wave of hospitalisations, vaccine escape, and yet more deaths could, could do for him. Then again, so could another national lockdown. Given Labour's poor performance and Keir Starmer's falling ratings, the leader of the opposition cannot be relied on as a critical friend anymore. He might have to raise criticisms and articulate public anger for a change.

Yet acting decisively now also has its costs. Johnson doesn't want to be caught out as overly prescriptive and cautious lest the variant not prove as deadly as forecast. Also, doing stuff, as we have seen, runs risks. A revision of the reopening timetable could stir up the backbenchers and the rest. Hence we have indecision, wait-and-see, and nothing that could be described as preventative measures for stamping out the Indian strain before it takes hold. Your reminder, as if it was needed, that we have the worst possible Prime Minister leading the worst possible government at the worst possible time.

Image Credit


Graham said...

The infection rate in Bolton started to rise in mid April and by May 1st was rising as steeply as in the previous September and January waves. I presume this was the same in other areas that now have a rapid growth in cases.
Nothing was said about this by the government, NHS or the media until after the May elections and the confirmation of the srep 3 easing of lockdown restriction.
None of the oposition parties seemed to have noticed what was happening either.

Nell said...

With the worst possible Opposition.

Anonymous said...

Andy Burnham is even more wretched than this government and he is supposed to be the great hope for the labour Party.

He complained at the lockdowns even happening and now he is complaining about the existence of the Indian variant, as if he is god and can wish it away.

All leftists should oppose mayors, they breed this type of populist leader scumbag.

Burnham is an opportunistic, calculating slime ball, no wonder he is popular! The other one, waiting patiently in the wings, is David Milliband, who I can only think is looking after Hell while the Devil is on vacation? But when the Devil returns, he will be back!