TDays before England locked down too late to avoid tens of thousands of deaths, a senior government official waltzed at No 10 to prophetically declare, “I think we’re absolutely screwed. I think this country is heading for disaster, I think we are going to kill thousands of people. In a functioning democracy, one would expect seasoned No.10-informed journalists to at least question what was glaringly obvious to those at the top – that Britain was disastrously ill-equipped and ill-prepared for a pandemic that was already sweeping the country.
This does not happen. Instead, government mantras that reflected both Boris Johnson’s denial of the severity of the crisis and the official lack of preparation were picked up and amplified by seasoned journalists, and the critics were ridiculed. Even as tens of thousands of people died – “who did not need to die,” as Johnson’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings correctly told MPs – as a result of the catastrophic strategy of the United Nations. Conservatives, the official opposition has been keen to support the government by alienating swing voters. Covid-19 has proven to be a tragic case study of what happens when a national emergency collides with a dysfunctional democracy.
While Johnson apparently dismissed Covid as a new swine flu and repeatedly suggested that the chief medical officer inject it on national television to prove there was nothing to worry about, the political editor of BBC Laura Kuenssberg took to Twitter share a video produced by an obscure podiatrist named “footman447”, in which he explained the logic of collective immunity using buckets of water. On social media, commentators ridiculed Labor’s demands for the government to publish its scientific advice as ” analysis hipster”. Critics have been denounced for having “politicized” the Covid. “Firmly and calmly,” spouted a Telegraph editor who later became a speechwriter for the government, “UK is leading Europe in fight against coronavirus”. It was “Boris Johnson’s Churchill moment,” cooed the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, foreign newspapers stared in dismay at a country that seemed to happily leap towards the edge of a cliff. Nineteen days before the lockdown, The New York Times made astute observations on the impending calamity of Britain which was lacking in most of the home press, noting a lack of ventilators, intensive care beds “already overflowing ”, some health workers buying their own PPE and austerity -NHS drained. If these issues had been the focus of UK coverage – rather than the breathlessly regurgitated No.10 rotation in favor of the government’s murderous policy on herd immunity – thousands could have been to be saved from premature graves.
There have been glaring exceptions – take the Sunday Times investigative reporters who responded to the Johnson administration’s response, or the BBC’s Lewis Goodall exposing the retirement home scandal – but Westminster-based lobby journalists have too often seen their role as delivering anonymous briefings from No.10 to suggest that there was a method in government madness (as Cummings points out, there was not).
Much of Cummings’ testimony already exists in the public domain. He simply placed it in the context of a conservative psychodrama, allowing him to execute drive-thru shootouts against prime targets – notably Matt Hancock – while ridiculously defending Rishi Sunak, who invited lockdown skeptics to Downing Street. last September in a successful mission to avoid a second national lockdown. For those who treat politics like a soap opera with a less appealing cast, it may quicken the pulse, but it leaves Labor with rather difficult questions.
Keir Starmer’s team decided to simply defer to focus groups urging the opposition not to “play politics” with a national emergency. This was quite different from the Conservatives’ approach during the financial crisis, for example, when they blamed the crisis on overspending on labor with such skillful repetition that focus groups quickly repeated these lines verbatim. We already knew that herd immunity was official policy; that vulnerable patients were sent back to nursing homes without testing, allowing the virus to tear; this lockdown was imposed too late; this test of handing over and traceability to private contractors was a disaster. England’s pandemic strategy was led by a man who regretted the first lockdown on the grounds that it damaged the economy and thought Covid was a scary story that only killed 80-year-olds (wrong, anyway).
Yet the Labor leadership has said it will work “constructively” with the government and not be “the opposition for the good of the opposition”, even praising some aspects of the official response as “incredible work” one month after the lockdown. When a right-wing commentator said that “Starmer’s definition of opposition is to determine where the Tories go – and get there first,” he was essentially right, allowing the government’s lines of attack on “Captain Hindsight” to pass. In January, Labor even took the astonishing stance of opposing the closure of schools in a new lockdown, only turning back when it learned the government was going to order it shortly.
As a result, much of the public concluded that the government received the wrong deck of cards – of course they made mistakes, but who would be out of place? – and that the Labor Party would have done little differently anyway. Yet Cummings’ testimony underscores a basic truth that would represent Britain’s biggest scandal since the appeasement if democracy worked as it should. Due to Johnson’s incompetence, inhumanity, laziness and pride, as well as the dire and entirely preventable decisions made by his team, tens of thousands of people have suffered premature and preventable deaths, without even the comfort of their loved ones to hold their hand in their last moments. .
Rather than scrutinizing government decisions, many senior political journalists have attempted to concoct a justification for them where there was none. Even as thousands suffocated in hospital beds due to disastrous official failures, the opposition threw a lifeline to the government by stressing how sober it intends to be. If you’re wondering why our ruling party has a sustained and seemingly unassailable lead in the polls, even after presiding over three times the Luftwaffe’s death toll in the Blitz, that’s why. “Hope this is a case study on how not to handle something like this,” Cummings says; it is also a case study of what happens when national institutions fail in their most basic function of holding government to account. A healthy democracy is a matter of life and death. What a lesson to learn at such an unbearable cost.