Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
For a Prime Minister who seems to care so much about history, it appears as if Boris Johnson has done everything in his power to leave a terrible legacy. In the multitude of books that will be written documenting the history of the coronavirus pandemic, miscommunication will form a key chapter.
In August, the Financial Times counted a dozen government U-turns since March 2020. I wrote, 7 months ago, that the Conservative Party’s reputation for competence might be a “victim of COVID-19″. Nothing has changed my mind since. With Lent ending, let us embark on an Easter egg hunt. What’s that, lurking behind the bush? Is it a chocolate bunny, or the decision to permanently remove the tiered system for restrictions? What about that large, shiny object in the tree? Is that what’s left of the herd immunity strategy? How about that shimmering trifecta on the bench—it looks an awful lot like U-turns one, two and three on free school meals. Frankly, there would be enough such eggs to leave a family of 5 happily chomping for a week.
Whilst this egg-hunt analogy is somewhat humorous, the point is deadly serious. Decisions have consequences. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, where national duty was painted as visiting restaurants, contributed to a “significant” rise in infections of as much as 17%.Two months later, predictably, it was everyone’s ‘duty’ to stay at home as a second lockdown was introduced. The scheme, subsidising restaurants and the hospitality sector, is a good one. The timing, however, was risky. Faced with an unknown entity, flexibility was always going to be needed. But so was honesty and a safety-first attitude. A risk-taker by nature, Johnson threw caution to the wind. The result was a devastating series of flip-flops, and a death rate for under-65s that was the second worst in Europe.
The U-turns, the result of an incompetent government scrambling, were not the only communication issues. The government can also be accused of hypocrisy. Most obviously is the reaction to Dominic Cumming’s trip to Barnard Castle, his supposed lack of vision mirroring the government’s lack of foresight. Let us not forget, however, Matt Hancock’s February assertion that it was too early to book summer holidays—having booked a trip to Cornwall himself. Or the fact that, just this week, a government that says a 1% pay-rise for nurses is “all we can afford” has rummaged through its pockets and found £2.6m for a briefing room—having previously burnt through £37b for a track and trace system which had “no clear impact”. This one message has been loud and clear; it is one rule for you, and another for us. UCL researchers have shown that Cumming’s lockdown row damaged adherence to lockdown guidelines. Agonisingly inconsistent on almost all other messaging, it is a cruel twist that government hypocrisy has remained constant.
It did not need to be this way. Amongst those writing up a history of the coronavirus pandemic is Supriya Garikipati. Garikipati has found that the (admittedly small) number of countries led by women have had had considerably better vaccine responses than counterpart countries led by males. These leaders have exercised “more decisive and clear communications”, an area in which Johnson and his government have failed abjectly.