Chaotic and contemptuous leaders leave the public confused on Covid
Published by The i paper (19th July, 2021)
It is easy to forget that when the pandemic first emerged from Wuhan, many people in the West feared democratic societies would never accept the sort of draconian restrictions imposed by China’s dictatorship. So our politicians were fatally slow to react, fearing the electoral consequences of panicky measures. Sage, the scientific advisory body, even set up a team of behavioural experts to offer insights into risk of public disorder. But then came those terrible scenes from Italy as the new virus spread death, fear and devastation around the planet – and finally even the flailing government of Boris Johnson abandoned ideas of herd immunity to back lockdown.
The reason the clampdown was accepted was simple: recognition that these were unprecedented events with urgent need for collective action to protect society and save lives. Most people responded magnificently to restrictions on their most basic freedoms due to this acceptance that we really weren’t all in it together. This was why citizens put up with being shut in their homes and barred from human contact, even with their own children and parents. This was why they allowed firms to dissolve, schools to shut down, crucial hospital appointments to be cancelled, funerals and weddings to be wrecked.
And this is why the behaviour of those imposing these regulations is so important, both practically and symbolically for its consequences.
Sadly, we have been let down repeatedly by our leaders in this time of crisis. Ignore for now the debate over timing of lockdowns, the failure to protect care homes, the wisdom of lifting curbs as cases surge, the rumbling uncertainty over masks, even the initial success of the vaccine roll-out. Simply ponder the personal behaviour of those people who tore up our way of life then bent or broke their own rules – and think about what this tells us about the beliefs, ethics and morality of a populist government that won power on the back of an insurgency against arrogant elitism.
Dominic Cummings, architect of that Brexit uprising, shattered the spirit of national unity last March with his trip to Barnard Castle and and a ludicrous defence that he was testing his eyesight. Housing Minister Robert Jenrick told us all to stay at home, then went to visit his parents. Matt Hancock, siren voice of caution in charge of the nation’s health, broke the social distancing rules because he could not control his lust – just like the key scientific adviser behind lockdown.
And now the three most important people in government – Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – have decided they could avoid self-isolation despite being pinged for coming in contact with coronavirus cases.
Never mind that as cases surge again, the pandemic is causing chaos for families, firms and public services when people’s phones ping endlessly with such warnings to avoid spreading infection. Government data show 840,000 children were self-isolating out of school in the first week of this month, while huge numbers of workers stay at home.
Yet, we were told to believe these three lucky politicians were picked randomly to participate in a pilot scheme involving daily testing instead of self-isolation. “It’s not just available for politicians,” claimed Jenrick, defending his boss – although London Underground, another participant in the trial, had to shut down a line on Saturday due to staff shortages while it waited for details about the scheme. Gove got away without self-isolation after his trip to Portugal to watch football. But the outcry over Johnson and Sunak attempting to follow suit after contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid forced a fast and humiliating U-turn.
At 8am yesterday Downing Street issued a statement declaring they would continue to go to work, then two hours and 38 minutes later issued another saying they had decided to self-isolate. Most people, of course, do not have such choices at their disposal. Sunak tweeted that he saw “even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong”. But as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said, the reality is this pair were “busted” for “yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don’t apply to them”.
There is profound symbolism in the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Health Secretary all being stuck in self-isolation on so-called “freedom day”, when the country is supposed to be returning to normal. Already Johnson has had to cancel a speech to mark the moment, which might have been reminiscent of President George W Bush’s foolish “mission accomplished” speech before the Iraq debacle descended into bloody hell.
We have also learned from a book by Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar that the Prime Minister does not really support anything he is asking the public to do in this pandemic. “I’m with Bonkers,” he said reportedly, referring to The Mail on Sunday’s anti-lockdown columnist Peter Hitchens. “I don’t believe in any of this, it’s all bullshit. I wish I’d been the mayor in Jaws and kept the beaches open.” If people were not suffering and dying, this might all be comedic. But this farce over self-isolation in Downing Street exposes the alarming attitude this Government has towards its fellow citizens.
We are led by a selfish and entitled man who talks about levelling up society yet believes rules are for the little people. He has shown this repeatedly, from his support for a home secretary who bullied her staff through to the peerage for a disgraced donor against official advice.
Johnson sees himself as a cavalier character, unshackled by petty societal mores, something witnessed in both his private and professional life, yet such an outlook is corrosive when running a nation that has lost faith in its politicians – and lethally toxic in a pandemic. We still need clarity of message and collective response. Instead, we get confusion and these displays of contempt from our leaders.