The View from the Hill: Boris Cancels Christmas

By Kenneth Maxwell

Boris Johnson moves from bluster through incompetency while promoting “moon shot” bromides.

He promised that millions of COVID-19 tests, including some giving results within a minute, would be available, while experts confirmed that the technology “does not as yet, exist.” And a “world beating” COVID-19 “test and trace” program which he has lamentably and repeatedly failed to deliver.

Meanwhile his team of ministers, whose main qualification seems to be blind loyalty to Boris, Brexit, and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s “special” adviser in 10 Downing Street, never seem to know what government COVID19 policy is.

Even the Prime Minister himself did not remember when questioned on a recent visit to Exeter. Which is hardly surprising after so many government U-turns. His ministers meanwhile refuse to participate in TV programs where they might be asked tough question.

They repeatedly fail to appear on the evening “Channel 4 News” with veteran newscaster Jon Snow. Or more significantly on ITV’s prime breakfast program “Good Morning Britain” where the formidable pair of Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid reign supreme.

Last Monday, October 12, 2020, in the face of exponentially rising COVID-19 infections, the Prime Minister announced a new three-tier system of restrictions. As has become usual with the Boris Johnson administration details of this new system were leaked from “anonymous sources” in Downing Street to the newspapers the week before.

As a consequence the Mayors of the most impacted coronavirus mega-cities in the North of England, Joe Anderson the mayor of Liverpool and Andy Burnham the mayor of greater Manchester, both spent the weekend haggling with the government over additional financial support for the local government public health agencies and the businesses that would be severely impacted by any new shut-down decrees, especially in the hospitality sectors like pubs and restaurants. To add a tragic poignancy to the situation the mayor of Liverpool’s elder brother died of coronavirus in the Royal Liverpool Hospital’s intensive care unit on Friday night.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, has emerged as the “King of the North.” He is an highly articulate former Labour Party Health Secretary of State under Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He had previously served as the First Secretary of the Treasury and as the Culture Secretary. He was a candidate for Labour Party leader when David Miliband won, and again against Jeremy Corbyn who also won. He was directly elected as the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017.

The ironic result of Coronavirus has been to strengthen the politicians who represent that part of the country. Andy Burnham has long criticized the “Westminster bubble” of the London-centric focus in British politics. On Thursday speaking on behalf of a coalition of northern mayors and local government leaders, both Labour and Conservative, he rejected the Boris Johnson government’s new measures in a major split between the government in Westminster and the leader of the major city in the north of England.

The government in London has the power to impose its three-tier system of restrictions on greater Manchester. But this move would bring back provocative memories of Margaret Thatcher’s notorious imposition of the “poll-tax” first in Scotland in 1989 and later in England and Wales in 1990. This provoked riots in cities and towns in Britain and was a major factor in her fall from power. John Major’s first action when he succeeded her as prime minister was to abandon the poll tax.

Andy Burnham’s role in the north of the country is important since Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority of 80 seats (and an effective working majority of 87 votes) in the House of Commons was largely cemented by breaking the so-called “red wall” of previously safe Labour Party Parliamentary seats across northern England’s post-industrial heartlands where the Conservative party flipped seats from red to blue. The was achieved by widespread distrust of Jeremy  Corbyn, but above all by Boris Johnson’s promise “to get Brexit Done.” Some of the seats has not had a Tory MP in decades.

The Conservative party in the House of Commons is growing increasingly restive. 42 Conservative party members (including Tory heavyweights such as Steve Baker, Graham Brady, David Davis and John Redwood) voted against the government in a motion about the 10 pm lockdown on pubs.

Chris Green the Conservative member for Bolton West in the greater Manchester area said that the “cure is worse than the disease.” He then resigned from his position as a government private secretary. It is not the first time Chris Green has resigned from a junior government appointment. He did so previously under Theresa May over Brexit at the same time that Boris Johnson also resigned as Foreign Secretary. Boris claimed at the time, with characteristic exuberant scatology, that Theresa May’s so-called “Chequers Plan” on Brexit was “polishing a turd.”

The aggravation of north-south divide is only the most recent challenge evident under the Johnson regime. For months we have been told that the government was “following the scientific advice”. But on Monday the government’s chief medical advisor for England, Professor Chris Whitty, standing next to the Prime Minister at the Downing Street virtual press conference when he was discussing his new three-tier system of restrictions on areas with high numbers of Covid infections, said that these would “by no-means be enough.”

Moreover, the minutes of the government’s SAGE (scientific advisory group for emergencies) were released within an hour of the press conference showing that the committee had urged ministers to impose a “circuit breaker lockdown” on 21 September, three weeks before. SAGE had argued that a short period of lockdown to return incidence to low levels would require everyone to stay at home for two to three weeks, possibly over the period of the upcoming mid-term school holidays, which would bring the  R-rate down below 1. But this would only temporarily impact the rate. Modelling suggested that 14 days of lockdown in October would put the epidemic back by 28 days and significantly reduce infections in December.

But on the day after the SAGE recommendations Boris Johnson addressed the nation and said that those who could carry on working from home should do so, which was a U-turn from previous government advice which had urged people to return to their workplaces to help the economy. He ignored all the other advice from SAGE’s scientists.

In the three weeks since the SAGE recommendations Covid-19 infections have increased exponentially across the north of England with numbers of infections doubling every ten days and hospital critical care beds filling up rapidly. The government had always claimed it was ”following the science”.

With the release of the SAGE minuets it is clear that the Boris Johnson government was not. It was the point at which the science of handling an infectious disease epidemic  lost out to economic considerations.

The Labour Party opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer on Tuesday held a press conference where he urged the government to impose a two week lockdown as SAGE had recommended and that this period be used to get the “test and trace” system up and running by having the system taken over by the local public health authorities which were closer to the people and knew their local areas rather than using the highly centralized and privatized system which was failing to deliver speed and comprehensive testing.

On Wednesday at “Prime Minister Questions” in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson accused Keir Starmer of “opportunism.” Hardly an accusation that carried any weight, Kier Starmer responded, when coming from someone whose whole political career has been characterized by serial opportunism.

The private companies to which the government has contracted out the “test and trace” program was not a National Health Service (NHS) program as is often assumed by the public. In fact, only four out of 35 “test and trace” organizations were NHS bodies. Private companies (among them ACF, Amazon, Sites, AstraZenexa, Deloitte, G4S, Serco) had also circumvented the normal tendering process. This is perhaps hardly surprising since 2012 under Tory governments the NHS in England has been increasingly marketized and privatized and COVID has greatly benefited the “big four” like Deloitte.

The NHS laboratories have been underused and others which offered expertise and advice have been ignored. The British Medical Association (BMA) has issued a damning report on the outsourcing of COVID-19 testing and tracing to private profit-making providers.

The multibillion-pound surge in outsourcing of public services during COVID-19 has built on the drastic cutting  back of public health services over the last decade by Tory governments. “Test and trace” contracts to Serco for example have been officially priced at £410m and to the French company SITEL of up to £310m. G4S is also involved. Official payment to these firms has not been published though approximate figures released by the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggest the final bill will run into several billions of pounds (a figure of 12 billion pounds has been mentioned).

Not surprisingly shares in Serco surged by 18% after it said that it expected to make un underlying profit for the year of between £160m and £165m after the government contract had helped boost its profits. Secro runs a quarter of the 500 test sites around the country.

Boris and his Home Secretary, Preti Patel, who is ideologically positioned on the Conservative party’s rightwing and considers herself a Thatcherite and is a long standing Eurosceptic and is from an Ugandan-Indian family. She prefers penalties and the use of the army to back-stop police and heavy fines for non-compliance and the deployment of “covid marshals” as enforcement agents, and Stassi like denunciations of neighbors.

This has further upset Conservative party libertarians. “A stitch in time saves nine” is Boris’s new mantra. “A snitch in time saves lives” might be a more appropriately description the Priti Patel approach. Boris Johnson meanwhile presses Greater Manchester to accept the new COVID measures without the extra money for the businesses impacted.

Meanwhile Britain continues to have the worse number of excess deaths in Europe. Britain’s economic performance is the worse among the G-7. And the UK was downgraded by Moody’s amid growth concerns.

The lack of coordination and consultation has be aggravated by a sense of vacancy at the heart of government. The northern mayors and civic official complain of the brief telephone calls at best and the “take-it or leave-it” attitude emanating from Whitehall. This has not only aggravated the north-south divide but also  strengthened the distrust of London among the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has been giving clear and comprehensive public daily briefings, as has Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales.

Both the Scottish and the Welsh leaders are perusing policies in a more timely and comprehensive manner than has the government in London. Wales has banned people from the high infection third-tier English areas adjacent to North Wales from entering the country.

Northern Ireland where COVID cases are the highest in Europe has introduced with Northern Ireland’s multi-party support a strict three-week lockdown including closing schools. In Scotland public opinion has now according to the most recent IpsosMORI poll showing 58% of Scots in favor of leaving the UK and 42% against. And 64%  believe that the UK should allow a new referendum on Scottish independence within the next five years.  In Scotland which is firmly pro-European Boris Johnson is unsurprisingly highly unpopular with 76% of Scots dissatisfied with him, the highest ever recorded for him.

And on top of all this, Brexit is back on the front burner, and the time clock to reach an agreement on a new trade relationship with the EU is running out.

Boris broke off negotiation with the EU on Friday. He told the country to prepare for a “no-deal” exit. David Frost (now the new Lord Frost) his chief negotiator, said there was no point in M. Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, returning to London to continue discussions.

Maybe Boris is hoping he with galvanize again his northern Brexit political base which had won him his huge majority the year before. He now wants an “Australian-style” deal apparently. Just as Priti Patel wants a new post-Brexit “Australian style“ immigration policy. “Taking back control of our borders, our money, and our laws” is proving to be very complicated. Not least because it so seriously disuniting the United Kingdom. The stance towards the EU could all be no more than more Boris bluff and hot air.

This is what many commentators believe. British businesses and the bankers and financiers in the City of London, however, are very worried since time is so short.

But that is another story.

In the interim dealing with COVID is complicated enough.

Featured Photo: Is-Christmas-cancelled-Boris-Johnson-coronavirus-latest-UK-lockdown-rules-Christmas

Editor’s Note

Following the science which is an oft used phrase is very misleading. Not only do scientists disagree significantly with regard to what to do, following scientific advice about what to do narrowly considered is only a part of the public policy problem.

It is frustrating to hear politicians use this phrase — “follow the science” — because there is no scientific method which will deliver a full spectrum consideration of how to re-generate the economy and open up society before lockdowns take a much more dramatic toll than COVID-19 is.

As noted in an article published last week on this website:

Speaking with the Rappahannock News at a picnic table outside the main RRHD office in Warrenton, the mask-wearing Dr. Kartchner expands on the other seldom discussed impacts — mental health, substance abuse, shutting down the economy, among others — COVID-19 is having on the community.

“It’s really hard to determine yet how bad it is,” he reflects. “There are some indicators, we see evidence perhaps, with more of an uptick in opioid cases, overdose cases. But I really think this is going to play out over years and years and we probably won’t know the extent of it until deep in retrospect.”

In this newspaper’s commentary pages last month, the RRHD health director didn’t hold back when discussing the “collateral damage” of the virus. In fact, as early as March 23 — one week before Rappahannock County’s first positive COVID case — he wrote in an email to Dr. M. Normal Oliver, the state’s health commissioner:

“With the institution of ever-increasingly drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus, I see perhaps an even greater danger in destroying the economy through such measures, with the resultant ramifications that brings to society and the long-term health of its citizens.

“We know from a population health perspective that one of the major determinants of health is the economic well-being of a person and society.

“I am concerned that a narrow focus on ‘flattening the curve’ in the short-term is taking precedence over the loss of life in the long term, as this entire cohort of people who are at significant risk of losing jobs, health insurance, homes, and savings suffers from suicide, abuse, increased morbidity and mortality from untreated or poorly treated conditions, mental health crises, divorce, and increased drug and alcohol abuse.”

The question is how best to come up with a way ahead which reopens society but manages COVID-19 risk within a broader policy context.

In my view, what Boris Johnson has done to himself by using the following science mantra is to reduce his ability to frame how society might best move ahead.

And why not have a wider Parliamentary debate and discussion on the trade-offs and challenges, but to inform the public as well as politicians about measured ways ahead.

Without economic growth, it will be difficult to hand out money.

And this just does not just apply to the United Kingdom of course.