I can hear you now, dear Brexit-voting, Boris-worshipping reader, about to go apoplectic over how I dare to even consider whether there should be some criticism for Saint Boris over this perfectly-handled response to the Covid-19 crisis?
Oh wait a minute, you’re actually a leftie and still mourning how the country were duped into not supporting a radical programme of democratic socialism – of course this is nothing less than a Tory Genocide.
It seems how you view Boris Johnson and the government’s handling of this crisis is rather closely related to how you voted in December 2019. Those that are outright criticising the government didn’t vote for Boris Johnson, those that are broadly supporting the government did vote for Boris Johnson.
So I’m in an odd position. I didn’t vote for Boris in 2019 – the first general election where I have not voted Conservative.
Yet I’ve found myself going from Brexit-related despair over almost everything the government does, to a modicum of support for the government – with antipathy towards left-wing arguments against the government, if not an especially strong defence of the government.
I guess it is possible that I have fallen back into being a Conservative now Brexit is no longer the political focus. However I expect it is partly due to “rally round the flag” phenomena, which almost all leaders across the world have experienced. You can see how Boris Johnson’s approval ratings shot up at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis.
I shall try to explain why I believe that the government has done broadly well in this crisis – though certainly not without criticism.
Trying to get my head back to where we were in early March is not easy, but I do remember getting on with life as normal – even going to visit family in Yorkshire on the weekend before lockdown began. There was certainly a sense of foreboding change and there were some hysterical warnings of crisis ahead, notably some on social media pointing to the near-collapse of the health service in northern Italy.
This was predicted here. We were told that the NHS would collapse, that there was nowhere near enough intensive care beds and nowhere near enough ventilators. And then there was a stream of stories about companies offering to make ventilators and how dare the government not respond to them.
Yet the NHS didn’t collapse. There were always enough intensive care beds and the emergency-built Nightingale hospitals were barely used. Ventilator capacity was not breached – there was a notable story about not requiring the Dyson ventilators.
This should be all be noted as successful organisation from the government, though as I’ll discuss later, arguably at cost.
Also the economic response from the Chancellor has been impressive – with the furlough scheme in particular hopefully saving many businesses and jobs that would not otherwise have been lost. Expensive, yes, though likely less expensive than just allowing the enforced, publicly-demanded economic collapse.
We were also told that the British public would not follow lockdown orders – yet a clear order from Boris Johnson explained the gravity of the situation (albeit it took two attempts) and there was, at least for the first few weeks, almost complete embracement of the order.
If you’d have asked me in January whether the British public with centuries of proud liberty behind them would support such draconian measures, I would have firmly disagreed.
Yet communication was not always clear. That first order on the Monday for people to stop going to pubs but pubs not to close was not ideal – and left me to wish that someone with the talent for clear communication was Prime Minister, instead of someone known more for slogans, waffling and being untrustworthy.
Some have argued that recent “Stay Alert” communication was not clear, though this only seems to have confused Boris Johnson’s opponents. I understood – I am sat in my bedroom on a Saturday evening writing this post.
Many seem now to argue that lockdown should have happened earlier, though that was a niche argument prior to the Monday where lockdown was (kind of) announced – I recall Rory Stewart making the argument though few others. I disagreed with him at the time, though in hindsight…maybe he was right.
Of course, the hindsight experts all say that they would have locked-down earlier had they been in charge, though I asked a couple of people that argued this during personal conversations what they were doing the weekend before lockdown – yep, they were out and about in pubs, shops, church, etc. Everyone is…or can be an expert in highsight.
PPE has clearly been a huge problem and I assume will have contributed towards our high death total. Yet this is a global issue – doctors in Germany were protesting over the lack of PPE – this a country whose response to the Covid-19 crisis has been widely praised. On the flip side, there seems to have been advice that the government should have had stockpiles of PPE, and arguably should have prepared more thoroughly for the mass use of PPE earlier in the crisis – though admittedly this was when China and the WHO were denying human-to-human transmission.
The real monster in the room to my judgement has been the volume of deaths in care homes. Whoever decided that patients should be discharged from hospital to care homes without a test for Covid-19 needs to be sacked…actually they probably need to be prosecuted, though that will never happen.
Whether that was the Prime Minister, Health Secretary, head of NHS England that ordered this – or perhaps whether these were decisions at local NHS trust level I have zero idea.
I wonder whether the care home issue would have been the same had social care not been politicised to the point where no government over the last few decades have attempted what would have been unpopular reforms – at least until Theresa May tried something in her 2017 election manifesto – and we saw a collapse in support from older voters there.
Also I recall Jeremy Hunt fighting to have social care included with his NHS portfolio at one point – alas, Brexit got the better of that idea and Jeremy Hunt in general.
Would either potential reform have been completed in time to affect the death rate in care homes? I have no idea.
Also I wonder if the intense media and particularly social media pressure over the warned-of collapse of the NHS led to poor decision making elsewhere? We won’t know that until the inquiry some years down the line.
This is a lot more wordy than I planned or desired so I’ll try to bring it to a conclusion – yet I know I have barely scratched the surface on an assessment.
I stress that I’m not an expert on any policy area discussed here, so you can take my analysis and summary with as large a pinch of politicised salt as you prefer.
Were this a self-imposed crisis – like Brexit or the Iraq War, then I’d feel much more willing to criticise the government. We should remember that this is a rather virulent and deadly virus that has escaped from China to the most interconnected city – and country in the world.
The delayed onset of symptoms and total lack of them for many makes it a difficult virus to track and control.
This is an externally-enforced crisis like 9/11, for example. Sure we could have been better prepared – just like the US could have in 2001 given that they had prior warning with an attempted bombing of the World Trade Centre.
Mistakes have been made – in particular, at least in my view, the error in allowing untested hospital patients be moved to care homes.
Interestingly it seems other European governments have all had similar criticisms of their handling of the crisis – from their political opponents. Take the left-wing (partly hard-left) government in Spain, for example, who have been criticised over – yes a lack of PPE and a care homes crisis, amongst other things. You can find similar criticisms of the centrist government in France or populist right-wing government in Italy.
It seems to me that it is impossible to have a perfectly successful response to such a crisis – any crisis in fact.
Time will judge more fairly than in the heat of the Covid-19 crisis – there will be a multitude of inquires and there is plenty more scope for the government to make more mistakes on the way out of lockdown.
You can clearly conclude on how the government has handled the Covid-19 crisis however your personal politics takes you and perhaps I am too, though I try to be as objective as possible – I am far from wedded to a Boris Johnson government.
I currently side with the idea that they have handled the Covid-19 crisis broadly well, yet I say that very tentatively not knowing who is responsible for the decisions around social care which seem to have been especially deadly. And I do suspect that having a Prime Minister who was more detail-focused and serious, such as Jeremy Hunt or Rory Stewart, would have led to a less bad outcome. Perhaps going forwards, people might regain the preference for serious leaders rather than populists? Probably wishful thinking.
Given how polarised our politics seems to be, I’m sure everyone reading disagrees with me.
Thank you for reading – I had to get my thoughts into writing. I wish you all well, and my heart goes out to anyone who has been personally affected by the crisis.