epa08419973 A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain, 13 May 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JESSICA TAYLOR/ UK PARLIAMENT)

In or out? Boris and the Great British Bungle

ALMOST as many people in the UK have watched an 18-second video by Matt Lucas, star of TV’s Little Britain, as watched Boris Johson’s pre-recorded statement on Sunday evening. Lucas summarises the Prime Minister (PM)’s 14-minute address to the nation quite precisely:

“So we are saying Don’t go to work, Go to work; Don’t take public transport, Go to work, Don’t go to work; Stay indoors, If you can work from home, Go to work; Don’t go to work; Go outside, Don’t go outside; And err then we will or won’t errr something or other.”

The video and a slug of other memes doing the rounds are laugh-out-loud good. I’d love for the humorous creativity unleashed by lockdown to remain as one of the abiding positive impacts of the crisis.

I’m pretty sure I’ll find them even more funny when I’m no longer lying in my bed wondering if this crushing exhaustion will ever lift, anxiously checking my temperature and oxygen just in case I’m one of the unfortunate few whose cytokines storm in the second week. I’m hoping that, like the majority of Brits who have come down with Covid-19, now estimated to be around 10% of our population, I’ll just have the slow, dragging five-week recovery.

I’m not so hopeful for my country.

The political blundering of the UK’s handling of this crisis has fuelled hundreds of op-eds and lengthy exposés. In between the funny memes and supportive messages checking on my health and offering help, my phone pings constantly with links to brilliant rants and long articles detailing how the UK cabinet — and especially our PM — got us into this mess. Since I got sick 11 days ago it’s been hard to stay on top of them all, but most of it has already been said. There is a common thread: the government started too late, keeps on shifting course and has been spectacularly bad at communicating with people.

The political mishandling of Covid-19 comes fast on the heels of the Brexit fiasco. It makes no scientific sense.

The UK is home to some of the very best medical journals — like the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Lancet (publisher of the earliest reports, and one of the first to lift its paywall for related coverage) as well as the best public health, and global health, institutions. Places like London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM — whose current director, and former UNAIDS boss, Professor Peter Piot, spoke out recently about his own serious illness with Covid-19). Our wretched record of failure, as the European country with the heftiest Covid-19 death rate, cannot be ascribed to a lack of scientific or medical brilliance — although there are already signs that politicians will try to shift blame their way. When the histories and inquiries conclude, Covid-19 will stand out as the pandemic that demonstrated why politics is central to public health, and what happens when you don’t put politics in its proper place.

As well as politics, communication is at the heart of public health.

And so the UK PM’s bungling attempts to explain the next steps is so striking, especially given that Johnson is known as “the great communicator”. Truthfulness may not be his middle name, but he is notorious for being able to get a message across, usually drenched in quirky (often offensive) allusions, his pronouncements are always memorable.

Maybe we can give him a pass on his delivery — he’s been through a couple of major life events over the past month — but the transcript of Sunday’s messy message is striking for its lack of substance and confused information.

Seven full weeks after we entered lockdown, the UK public learnt that there would be five alert levels and we were in “Level 4” lockdown. Friends thought this was another wacky idea cooked up in Number 10 Downing Street, and were astonished to hear how well understood this is throughout South Africa. It’s now 67 days since the first death in the UK from Covid-19, and still the majority of the population have no idea why we are doing what we are doing. It’s hardly a surprise to learn that more people in Britain are frightened of Covid-19 than anywhere else; equally unsurprising that within a couple of days of the PM’s TV address nearly half a million people had signed a petition to stop children being sent back to school next month.

From the start, Johnson had been eking things out, not because of rational debates about the merits of different public health approaches, and how best to save thousands of lives, but rather panic that the economy would tank when the UK was least able to absorb even more economic mess.

The push to re-open schools could be positioned as a rational response to the low impact of Covid-19 on children, or concern to stop children falling behind and losing out on the quality education that all deserve.

Both fair points.

Children rarely progress to highly symptomatic Covid-19 and there are real fears that without face-to-face interaction, a supportive home learning environment and access to the necessary IT equipment many, especially poorer, children will fall behind. But the truth is that most schools in the UK have been open for the past seven weeks, with a small band of teachers waiting to take in the vulnerable; yet only 10% of the children who can access that face-to-face education are doing so.

Their parents are too frightened to send them back.

Back in March, as Covid-19 was ripping through London with death rates shooting up, many of us were perplexed about why strong, decisive measures weren’t put in place. Every day the public were drip-fed a new approach allegedly designed to keep people safe; many of us wondered if they weren’t just trying to cling on until the end of the school term — if they could just keep the schools open a few more days…

In the end the threat to life was just too great. Two weeks before Easter holidays were due to start, schools were finally closed to all but the most in need, in particular the children of Key Workers on the frontline of the Covid-19 response. It is plain that the UK approach is all about making sure people work — initially to keep the NHS running and now to get far more workers back out of the house.

From the start, Johnson had been eking things out, not because of rational debates about the merits of different public health approaches, and how best to save thousands of lives, but rather panic that the economy would tank when the UK was least able to absorb even more economic mess.

In early April, journalists from Reuters and The Guardian trawled through records from the previous three months, unpicking the claims that the UK Cabinet was being “led by the science” and trying to understand how we descended into such chaos. Their lengthy, excellent articles document many twists and turns, including how from mid-January the expert scientific advisers were flagging concerns about Coronavirus/Covid-19 such that, while the threat still seemed low, it was discussed at Cobra (the UK government emergency committee) on 22 January. On 30 January Cobra raised the Covid-19 threat level from “low” to “moderate”.

The next day the UK left the EU.

The Brexit negotiations then began in earnest and the anxiety to get out of Europe with some trade deals in place overwhelmed all interest in this viral curiosity.

The peculiar, protracted — and in the end hasty — decisions to leave the EU mean that the UK has a transitional year where we can still benefit from Europe-wide collective deals. The day after the UK’s emergency committee raised the threat of Covid-19 to “moderate”, UK civil servants were stopped from joining Europe-wide efforts to order stocks of PPE; they never got involved in joint procurement of ventilators either.

Missing all Cobra meetings until early March (despite increasingly alarming information about Covid-19 being tabled) Johnson bounced around pointing out that the UK is open for business.

On 3 February, discussing lockdowns then under way in places like Wuhan, he rails against approaches that

“trigger a panic…. that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage”.

Instead he pitches the UK as a government

“that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other”.

49 days — and 335 British deaths — later, when Johnson finally stops flashing his superman cloak around, his lockdown speech hones in on the economy telling British citizens:

“I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs.” 

He might have forgotten to mention the hundreds of grieving families, but the economic interventions were swift and impressive. The furlough scheme is the most dramatic intervention, with government paying 80% of wages (up to £2,500 per month) for workers forced to stop work.

Over the days that followed, daily announcements brought new packages to plug gaps and make coping with Covid-19 financially easier for businesses and individuals (annoyingly, I’m in the small group of people who slipped through the net of government bailouts, but that’s another story). It’s a perfect incentive to keep people in their homes — good for public health, and great for online deliveries, which are booming.

The costs are ballooning, exceeding £100-billion by the end of April. So too are the calls from industry to “get back to work”.

Many have wondered if his brush with death would change Johnson. He certainly seems like a man who has been dealt quite a blow. My own recent experience confirms that — even without a trip to hospital — this virus throws quite a hefty, unpredictable punch to the 55-year old body. Perhaps that explains some of the bizarre imprecision of our lurch into “maybe” coming out of lockdown. This time the balance hasn’t tipped so neatly from health to economics. It’s not really clear where it’s landed.

On Wednesday, in the virus stew of East London, I woke up to the sounds of sirens. That’s quite normal. I hear them a lot. An hour later I started to hear the sounds of construction sites. That’s new. I haven’t heard those in the seven weeks I’ve lived here.

There is massive confusion about what people are supposed to do, but the signals are that the poorest, those with least negotiating power, are dragging themselves back to work. Unsure whether they are supposed to go back, and if so when, many don’t want to risk their employers’ wrath by getting it wrong.

For a couple of weeks trade unions have been crying out for proper safety measures to be put in place before people are told to go back to work; throughout the day advice trickled out slowly, reacting to the latest concern — you might think they were making it up as they go along.

At the end of the day when people might, or might not, have been encouraged to go back to work, London’s public transport was still running a very limited service and commuters shared videos of dangerous chaos. There’s been a 9% increase in travellers and repeated images show people pushed up against one another with very few wearing masks or cloth coverings.

Government guidance says avoid commuting at rush hour, and — if you can — travel by car, bicycle or walk. One London MP pointed out that it would take her one hour 45 minutes to walk to work, even though she always thought she lived in central London. London is huge, and the cheapest accommodation is furthest out; very few Londoners commute by cars — or even own them.

It is those with least options and the worst wages who are struggling back to work. The day after the PM read out his confused speech, the government released another analysis of Covid deaths. As well as finding that black men are four times as likely to die, for the first time they record the riskiest occupations: male security guards, taxi drivers, chefs, care workers, bus and coach drivers, construction workers. The Office of National Statistics points out:

“Men working in the lowest-skilled occupations had the highest rate of death involving Covid-19”.

I’d say it a bit differently: Poverty and bad politics kills.


This article was first published on a personal blog of the author which can be accessed here and on Daily Maverick. The article is re-published with the prior consent of the author. 

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