Years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon. We drifted gently down the green Colorado River each day. When we heard the roar of rapids ahead, we moored and climbed to some vantage point from which we could attempt to plot a course through the raging waters and giant boulders below. With thumping hearts we let the swiftly accelerating current sweep our fragile craft down into the maelstrom.
I feel something of the same trepidation now as Britain heads inexorably into a second wave of Covid-19 this winter. The infection rate is soaring. Death rates are climbing. Hospitals are filling. “We’re at a tipping point similar to where we were in March,” Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, warns. Ahead lie all manner of hazards that pose a grave threat to the nation’s physical, mental and economic health, not to mention its cohesion. Additionally, we must somehow negotiate the great, treacherous whirlpool of Brexit.
The really bad news is that our helmsmen – Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock et al – have not charted a way through. They don’t even have oars or lifejackets.
This second wave was entirely predictable, but the government did precious little to prepare for it during the relatively placid summer months. We have more personal protective equipment. Our doctors understand better how to treat the disease. But the NHS may still be overwhelmed despite billions in extra funding, and our “world-beating” test and trace system remains lamentably inadequate. Why those in charge of the latter failed to anticipate the surge in demand when schools and universities reopened last month has yet to be explained.
[see also: Do the British public favour a second lockdown?]
Its contentious three-tier system for local lockdowns notwithstanding, the government has yet to produce a coherent longer-term strategy for combatting the pandemic. It veers between following the science and following its libertarian instincts. It attempts to steer a middle course between saving lives and saving the economy, but risks achieving neither. It hopes to suppress Covid-19 until a vaccine is found, but that could be many months or even years away. “Does Boris Johnson have a Plan B?”, the headline of a Daily Telegraph editorial asks. More to the point, does it have a Plan A?
It has zig-zagged and U-turned. It has repeatedly set and missed targets. Time and again it has over-promised and under-delivered. We will “send this virus packing” within 12 weeks, Johnson promised on 19 March. “We are past the peak and we are on the downward slope,” he declared on 30 April. On 17 July he envisaged a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. On 22 September he envisaged new restrictions lasting another six months.
The government’s communications have been dire. Eat out, return to work and “live without fear”, ministers tell us one week. Stay home and lock down, we are told the next. Measures such as the “rule of six” and the 10pm curfew are imposed, often through late-night diktats, without any attempt to explain the scientific rationale behind them. The rules have seemed makeshift, improvised and arbitrary, and more applicable to some than others. There have been so many that even the Prime Minister has struggled to master them. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, justifiably accuses the government of “bobbing all over the place”.
The tiny cabal that runs our government has, until now, failed to consult, inform or draw on the wisdom of parliament, provoking angry rebukes from the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. It has, until now, failed to co-opt the knowledge, expertise and street-level workforces of regional mayors and local councils. Crucially, it has forfeited the trust and support of the general public, with polls showing that less than a third now approve of the way it has handled Covid-19. The national unity of March has given way to anger, dissent and outright disobedience.
Covid-19 certainly presents an enormous and unprecedented challenge, but Britain’s response has been worse than that of almost any other developed nation save for the US. What the government did do during the summer was fight divisive, destructive ideological battles that were seemingly inspired more by a desire for control and revenge than for the public good.
In the midst of a national emergency it embarked on a drive to decapitate and politicise the civil service. It devised plans to put right-wing Brexiteers in charge of the state media apparatus. It demonised illegal immigrants, and engaged spasmodically in culture wars. Worst, it refused to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period even though its expiry on 31 December will pile chaos on chaos – with a predicted 7,000 lorries queuing to cross the Channel only the start of it.
Johnson remains a journalist at heart. His forte is grabbing headlines. That is what he did as London mayor with his plans for a Garden Bridge and a new Thames estuary airport. It is what he did in the 2016 EU referendum with his talk of Britain’s “Independence Day” and a whopping Brexit dividend for the NHS. It is what he did in his speech to the virtual Tory party conference last week by talking of building a “New Jerusalem”, making Britain the Saudi Arabia of wind power, and travelling around in zero carbon jets and driving hydrogen cars.
There is room for visionaries and ideological experimentation in public life, but not now – not in the middle of Britain’s gravest health and economic crisis since the Second World War. What the country desperately requires of its government at the present moment is competence, pragmatism and a laserlike focus on the task at hand. Without those fundamental qualities, Britain should regard the nearing rapids with the deepest foreboding.
[see also: How Boris Johnson can save his premiership]