Britain, COVID-19 and the Perils of Electing a Government of Liars

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t best pleased at the outcome of the 2019 general election.

This wasn’t due to any undying loyalty to the resoundingly vanquished opposition mind, nor was I sufficiently enamoured with any of the night’s many losers to the extent where their pain vicariously became my own.

However, there was one oh so simple hope I did carry with me throughout the campaign.

Owing to my sense of optimism being beaten down, desecrated and terminally punctured over the preceding few years, I wasn’t hoping for anything outlandish or crazy – I just didn’t want the mendacious demagogue who’d spent his entire career violating the very concept of integrity to win the majority he so craved.

So, inevitably, that is precisely what happened.

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Hello darkness, my old friend…

However, as loathsome a prospect a Boris Johnson premiership undoubtedly was, the greater threat undoubtedly lay in the cabinet of misfit toys he would bring into power alongside him.

And we weren’t talking your garden variety political jobsworths either – these were premium chancers. Unscrupulous careerists to whom being a conduit for the most brazen of lies isn’t so much a question of integrity, rather a rite of passage to attain a higher position on the proverbial greasy pole.

You could argue that the political realm has always been awash with the amoral and callous, relentlessly pursuing their own self interest. “T’was ever thus” as Johnson’s most slippery of lieutenants once said – and, by and large, that’s often been the case.

The key difference however, is that a ghoulish lack of empathy and perpetual undercurrent of astonishing ineptitude becomes really apparent on the rare occasions a legitimate life or death crisis holds the nation in a relentless stranglehold.

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And that’s just the hospital deaths.

Of course I’m referring to the coronavirus – a pandemic which needs absolutely no introduction as it continues to keep vast swathes of the global population marooned at home.

The outbreak of this new and highly contagious virus has exposed both the alarming fragility and rank hypocrisy residing in both Britain’s public services infrastructure and the powerful establishments to whom its ultimate fate is tied – the treatment of the NHS being the most obvious example. It’s all well and good praising them to high heaven and offering up tokenistic applause when they’re the only thing standing between Britain and an unthinkable fatality count, but don’t expect superficial gestures to erase a decade of gutting their resources and having your sympathetic pals in the gutter press undermine their plight at every turn.

The more obvious examples of failures of leadership and historical negligence on the part of the government are well documented by this point. However, the true extent of their blundering is effectively impossible to quantify – owing almost entirely to the deliberate obfuscations and contradictory communications from the government.

Let’s use a recent example to illustrate the point – Britain’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the EU ventilator procurement scheme.

This was an unedifying cavalcade of calamity and confusion from the get go. The first stance attempted was that we simply didn’t need to. We were out of the EU and didn’t need to cooperate with those pesky eurocrats anymore as Britain could stand alone.

So far, so Brexit – but, soon after, word got out that this wasn’t actually the case and Britain hadn’t taken part on account of “missing an email”. A convenient and undeniably useful excuse for when you’ve forgotten to do a work assignment perhaps, but considerably less credible when a global pandemic has the country you’re attempting to run gripped tightly by the gonads.

This confused and apparently gleeful indulgence in contradictory messaging rumbled on for a while, essentially relegated to a background gripe with more pressing items of woe being at the forefront of the news agenda.

However, the moment senior Foreign Office official Sir Simon McDonald informed the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the decision was indeed political, Pandora’s box lurched open once more – the sorry spectacle attaining its peak level of intrigue when the following bizarre and seemingly coerced retraction was hurriedly released into the public sphere:

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If you listen really closely, you can hear the sound of Sir Simon McDonald falling on his own sword for “the greater good”.

So what really happened? Who’s actually responsible for this procession of pitiful incompetence? Nobody on the outside could ever realistically hope to know – and that’s precisely the point. Clearly something is amiss, otherwise the messaging wouldn’t be so erratic – yet with each jarring gear shift the truth becomes ever the more buried beneath increasingly vague and repeatedly contradictory lines of communication.

And, if the spin doctors are especially lucky, it’ll serve as a suitably convenient distraction to an altogether more horrific government induced catastrophe elsewhere.

You could be forgiven for thinking a torrent of disinformation, itself being bolstered by incredibly cynical timing has a fairly familiar ring to it – and you’d be right. It’s the Vote Leave modus operandi – and its reemergence is no coincidence; not when many of its key figures now ply their trade at the very top of our current government.

Dominic Raab is Foreign Secretary, Priti Patel is Home Secretary, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister – and, of course, we have former Vote Leave Director Dominic Cummings as Boris’ senior adviser. To name but a few.

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Don’t forget Michael Gove either – as much as you probably want to.

With this in mind, it’s important to realise that this isn’t just a government dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a government with a constant focus on its own PR – and when you’re an administration with such a startling penchant for hapless bungling, you need a crack team of shameless bullshitters to do the donkey work.

Naturally such donkey work ranges from the sinister to the downright embarrassing. Whether you’re subtly attempting to retrospectively change the nature of the target you’re about to fail, or heralding a decrease in reports of shoplifting while the vast majority of shops are closed as some sort of achievement – integrity is left forlornly at the door when you sign up for Team Boris.

Just stick to the script, never concede even a semblance of fault and never, ever, under any circumstances acknowledge the amount of care workers who have died. This isn’t just a grisly statistic for the generic Tory drone, but a political inconvenience which must be evaded at any cost.

Besides – if you let empathy seep too deeply into your thoughts and flaunt these rules on moral grounds, it would be an admittance of culpability – and that will certainly leave you in a very uncomfortable position when the inevitable public inquiry rears its vengeful head.

He’s not the Messiah – he’s just a convenient distraction

Death has a curious way of affecting opinion on public figures – at least when viewed through the admittedly dubious lens of a media narrative.

This is perhaps understandable. After all, what more emotive subject could there be to tug on the collective heartstrings than one concerning a very public life being snuffed out before its time? Whether you loved the individual in question or became agitated by the mere mention of their name, once that vicarious journey slams unexpectedly to a halt it feels churlish to offer up even the mildest of criticism. Wall to wall veneration becomes the order of the day – whether that be from the shocked and sympathetic public or the brazenly cynical media hoping to eke out as much mileage from the tragedy as possible; even if that means performing a judgement u-turn so vast it’s visible from the far side of the galaxy.

As inadvertently cynical as my tone may appear, I do get it. Death is a grisly subject and the finality it brings can lead to even bearing witness to a close encounter scattering your emotions far and wide across the spectrum.

However, that’s not to say we can’t sometimes find ourselves guilty of sanctifying the unfortunately stricken individual to a nauseatingly absurd degree.

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Irony not included.

Surprisingly enough, it’s actually not Jesus to which Allison Pearson is referring to here – rather Boris Johnson; a man with a such a long list of calamities and moments of shame it stretches around the Earth’s equator twice.

However, putting personal opinion and diametrically opposed politics to one side, there’s no doubting that Boris Johnson was dangerously ill with the coronavirus – and, in a moment which provided a refreshing demonstration that simple human empathy hadn’t quite abandoned the general public at large just yet, people of all political stripes stepped up to wish the Prime Minister well.¬† The emergence of Covid-19 hasn’t just sparked a national crisis, it’s caused the entire planet to grind to a halt. Nobody is immune, nobody is safe and everybody’s life is now haunted by the lingering worry that some of our loved ones might not make it through to the other side of this. If ever there were a time to put personal grievances to one side for the greater good, it’s now.

Fortunately, despite being confined to an intensive care unit for a couple of nights, Johnson did indeed survive and is currently undergoing a period of recuperation at Chequers.

Less fortunately however, is the manner in which his illness and recovery have been hijacked – for both the purposes of political capital and to serve as a totemic success story to divert attention away from a back catalogue of confused leadership, dereliction of duty and a crisis which is now severely out of hand.

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If you squint, you can just about make out the fact that over 10,000 people have died in a matter of weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic has perpetuated a desperate struggle, the likes of which the majority of us have never witnessed. This, combined with the fact that we’re still mired somewhere in the middle of an ongoing emergency with no known conclusion on the horizon, makes it rather difficult to predict what the overarching story of Covid-19 in Britain will actually be – which leaves a tantalisingly blank page on offer for anyone who wishes to slant the upcoming history book in their favour.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise that Boris Johnson, purely by the virtue of surviving the coronavirus, is being painted as a quasi messianic figure whose personal victory over the disease somehow equates to Britain scoring an overall win, regardless of how many dead bodies pile up around him.

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Also – 980 people died.

This rather callous descent towards the realm of cynical spin was always inevitable. Not least when you consider how the government initially handled the coronavirus outbreak – specifically by doing absolutely nothing while subtly attempting to sell the sinister notion that the “herd immunity” approach was a good idea; clearly unconcerned that this would lead to countless preventable deaths.

“We’re following the science” it was claimed, which isn’t the easiest claim to dispute as a layman. Though it was rather disconcerting to see that no other nation in the world was following the same science as we were – not to mention wasting little time in implementing strict and coherent lock-down measures.

When it became clear this strategy was heading for unmitigated disaster, the government changed approach. However, no sign of humility or contrition was on display – rather they made the peculiar claim that “the science changed”. Conveniently enough to the same science most others were utilising weeks before.

Even when the lock-down was finally imposed on Britain, it was ramshackle. Effectively starting life as advisory rather than a state imposed restriction, this confusing, ham-fisted attempt at leadership reached a crescendo of abject absurdity the moment Boris Johnson’s own father appeared on TV to undermine his son’s advice less than 24 hours after it was issued – which isn’t a sentence¬† that should appear when writing a retrospective of competent government strategy.

Furthermore, such critique makes no mention of the grim fate being experienced by NHS workers. Despite having no choice but to literally face down a highly contagious illness, many have been forced to go without basic PPE on account of a startling lack of availability. Rather than admit any culpability for failing to properly equip an organisation they’ve been gutting for a decade, Health Secretary Matt Hancock opted to suggest that the NHS staff were at fault for not utilising what was available in a suitably economic fashion.

Naturally, such a slight was PR suicide for the government – so it must have come as a considerable relief that the media were more interested in the fact that Boris Johnson was binge watching Lord of the Rings.

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The last time I saw the Tories cheer the NHS to this extent, it was to celebrate denying their staff a payrise.

It has to be acknowledged that we’re currently living through unprecedented circumstances in which the occasional strategic misstep is somewhat of a bleak inevitability – but that doesn’t mean it’s time to treat the government with kid gloves and award them a suitably naff “I tried my best” badge.¬† At the time of writing, there have currently been 11,329 deaths in the UK from the coronavirus – and that only accounts for those who died at hospital. They must be held to account – with the piercing, concise and constant opposition a genuine life or death situation demands.

However, given that the actual death figure is likely to forever remain a chilling mystery and the nations media is singularly enthralled by the individual survival of Boris Johnson, while barely paying lip service to the thousands no longer with us, the full spectre of what still faces us remains unclear.

In such uncertain times it would be of substantial comfort to be able to trust in our government – but, owing to their tendency for evasive sophistry and a pliant, sympathetic media all too happy to obfuscate, it just gives the distinct impression that they’re hiding something.