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While the Shark Still Swims: Boris Johnson, Super Saturday and Super Responsibilities

By most accounts, the response of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the coronavirus pandemic has been abysmal. When the architect of the response himself catches the virus, he is either a more informed person for his sin or a buffoon in need of serious chastising.

In June, the prime minister claimed pride in announcing a new commitment for the majority – and a thumping one at that – of COVID-19 tests to be processed within 24 hours. Marvellous news to behold, except that Johnson had also revealed how he was getting a meaty grip on cabinet committees, thereby taking “control” of the pandemic response. The response from Labour’s Keir Starmer was one of quizzical disdain. “So an obvious question for the prime minister: who’s been in direct control up till now?”

A hail of dissimulation followed by way of reply. “I take full responsibility for everything this government has been doing in tackling coronavirus, and I’m very proud of our record. If you look at what we have achieved so far, it is considerable. We have protected the NHS, we have driven down the death rate. We are now seeing far fewer hospital admissions.”

When he is caught out, either by means of offending a person, race or country, his approach is one of the half-hearted apology, often served with a good backhand. “By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words,” suggests Arianne Shahvisi in the London Review of Books, “Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.”

There is certainly much to apologise for in terms of how Britain has handled the spread of COVID-19. We will never know the full extent of what the death toll might have been had the lockdown been introduced say, a week earlier, but estimates abound. James Annan, a scientist who admittedly earns his crust in the field of climate prediction, claimed in May that a lockdown that had come into force one week earlier “would have saved 30,000 lives in the current wave (based on official numbers, which are themselves a substantial underestimate). It would also have made for a shorter, cheaper, less damaging lockdown in economic terms.”

Professor Neil Ferguson, Johnson’s former adviser on dealing with the virus, had his own calculation to mess the stable of policy. “Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier,” argued Ferguson before a committee of MPs, “we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.” (Ferguson, it should also be said, breached the very lockdown measures he had advocated, necessitating his resignation.) He singled out the disaster that befell care homes. “We made the rather optimistic assumption that somehow the elderly would be shielded.” While the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies had “anticipated in theory” the risk, “extensive testing to make sure it doesn’t get in” did not take place.

The entire picture, from governance to coordination between the UK’s various health entities, as public health specialist Martin McKee and colleagues point out in the BMJ, has been a bungle of grand proportions. Parliament has not been able to scrutinise the actions of ministers. Local government leaders found themselves left out of discussions on a national, coordinated approach. The procurement of goods and services by a civil service dogged by outsourcing was catastrophic. Ethnic minorities were left particularly vulnerable and, just to round up this little list of horrors, international collaboration was poor. “The UK’s engagement with its European neighbours,” conclude McKee, et al., “was chaotic with unconvincing excuses invoking overlooking emails.”

Over the weekend, England faces its promised “Super Saturday”, the sort of government advertising criticised for its incentive to cut loose and run just a tad riot. “I am worried that by opening on a Saturday, rather than letting things bed in over a week there is a likely threat of serious disorder,” warned West Midlands’ police and crime commissioner David Jamieson in a statement.

Bars, cafes, pubs, restaurants and hairdressers will open (some already have), subject to a slew of regulations. Two households will be able to convene in any setting, subject to social distancing measures. An enforceable 30-person limit will apply, with one-metre-plus social distancing rules and time limits being placed on patrons and diners. The buzz of re-opening will not be enough to arrest the rot that had already settled into the British pub scene, marred as it by the phenomenon of the pub company. Beer-tie agreements binding the tenant to pay rent and purchase supplies from such “pubcos” were already killing off a good number of pubs before the coronavirus struck.

A spokesman for the prime minister has also informed the press of continued closures. “The regulations also keep in place a list of premises that must remain closed and that includes nightclubs, nail bars, salons, indoor play areas, gyms, conference centres and exhibition halls.”

Johnson, as he had done from the start of his prime ministership, is talking up the sensible Briton, capable of good behaviour in preventing another surge of infections. The success of the reopening, “and ultimately the economic health of the whole country is dependent on every single one of us acting responsibly.” He acknowledged that “the government will not hesitate in putting on the brakes and reimposing restrictions.” Words of wisdom were given: “follow the rules” and “don’t overdo it.” The shark, he warned was “still out there in the water.”

The prime minister is seeking a halfway house. He is urging for the creation of a more responsible, sober Briton, capable of enjoying pints at a social distance while remaining sharp on boundaries and infection. He is playing the nanny who casts an approving eye of liberation and dispensation, and the father who promises disciplinary retribution for transgressions. Apologies will duly follow.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Last night (030720) the UK had a death rate of 14% of those who tested positive to COVID-19, the highest in the world. Australia has been lucky since the Ruby Princess debacle in Sydney commenced the pandemic in Australia, but the ignorant fools in Victoria who refuse to be tested should be encouraged by making testing mandatory, otherwise the pandemic will sneak out of Victoria to infect the remainder of Australia, probably by a single infective uncaring egotistical idiot moving interstate by rail … (yes, that has happened already).

  2. Matters Not

    A significant problem – now and in the foreseeable future – is the almost universal penetration of ‘social media’, broadly defined. The aim of developing a critical perspective (admirable in itself but poorly understood) seems to be aiding and abetting the rise of an intellectual nihilism where all opinions (including expert ones) are held to be of equal worth. For its dire consequences, look at Victoria and the refusal of so many to be tested for virus infection.

    The irony of it all.

  3. Phil

    This virus will spiral out of control in the UK. You don’t a need PhD in political science or be an M.D. to figure out, Boris Johnson will be the cause of it, he is a serial liar and a pompous half wit. He is in the progress like Trump, of making his country a laughing stock. I still correspond with relatives in the UK they tell me it is like living in an asylum there at the moment. If he lets the dissidents from Hong Kong into the UK, they will string him up on a light pole. The Brits make our racists look like social workers. Just what the UK needs on top of Covid -19 more people on the old King Cole. Tommy Robinson will run up the Swastika. Interesting times ahead.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Many would argue that Johnson is merely a symptom or the retail face of the Tory Party and Brexit brigade, the real power behind the PM is Dominic Cummings with murky links, back to the US including Cambridge Analytica, Mercer, Bannon and radical right libertarians, from Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

    ‘It marked the moment that Dominic Cummings entered my life – though at the time I had no idea who he was. At that time few people did. Cummings was the dark horse, known to just a few Westminster insiders, who had stealthily steered Vote Leave to victory in June 2016 while the rest of us were looking the other way.

    But that is no longer the case. In the past two weeks, he has emerged from the shadows and burned himself on to the nation’s consciousness. As Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, he’s helped mastermind some of the most audacious – and outrageous – moves ever committed by a British prime minister: an attempt to suspend parliament, and the expulsion of 21 moderate MPs from the Conservative party. Moves that led the mild man of British politics, the former prime minister John Major, to call him a “political anarchist” who was “poisoning politics”.

    US journalist Jane Mayer of Dark Money fame in The New Yorker:

    ‘New Evidence Emerges of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica’s Role in Brexit. The possibility that Brexit and the Trump campaign relied on some of the same advisers to further far-right nationalist campaigns has set off alarm bells on both sides of the Atlantic.

    For two years, observers have speculated that the June, 2016, Brexit campaign in the U.K. served as a petri dish for Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign in the United States. Now there is new evidence that it did.’

    Wheels within wheels of an Anglo exceptionalism wrapped up with radical right libertarian ideology and white Christian nationalism, that also links to Oz via IPA etc. (within the Koch eco-system); the politicians and parliamentary democracy are simply coincidental delivery systems returning us to 19th century capitalism back grounded by eugenics.

  5. Matters Not

    Bertie – again you should check your sources. Here’s a quick Google on your latest ‘link’.

    Swiss Policy Research (SPR) or (before May 2020) Swiss Propaganda Research is a multi-language website launched in 2016, which describes itself as “an independent nonprofit research group investigating geopolitical propaganda in Swiss and international media”. Based on its largely conspiratorial contents and its cherry picking of questionable scientific studies, it has been categorised by some as an anti-establishment propaganda site.[ The editors of the site are unknown, but they claim that “SPR is composed of independent academics and receives no external funding”. Contrary to what the name ‘Swiss Propaganda Research’ suggests, it has been speculated that the site might not actually be managed by people from Switzerland

    Further – “The site has been criticised for spreading conspiracy theories and especially so during the times of the COVID-19 pandemic when it has become a source of misinformation and disinformation internationally. SPR has been categorized by some as a tool of propaganda.

    Bertie – it’s about credibility which is not to be equated with ‘quack’ sites. Shooting blanks again!

  6. Bertie

    Hi MN, shooting blanks or uncovering gems? Good to see you heading in the right direction at last. Wikipedia is a step up on the previous link you dropped, namely, Hank’s a fan of Illuminati going by his choice of logo. Poor Hank.

  7. Bertie

    Speaking about sharks & covid, Melbournites might find this take on things interesting, ‘Plans to build 858 private dwellings. Always more to the story’

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