SINKING LEADERSHIP – Systematic Failings at the Heart of Government

I promised that I wouldn’t write about the government’s approach to the coronavirus until it was all over.

But that promise was made under the assumption that this particular group of politicians, fresh from their total electoral victory, would get some kind of handle on the situation. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, because no-one could reasonably expect a government to get it completely right, straight from the beginning.

Unless you’re South Korea or Vietnam. But then again, they also know what their citizens eat for breakfast, so swings and roundabouts.

We have been in lockdown for four weeks. We, the people, are doing our part, and are losing jobs, our sense of normality and even our own sanity to do so. And what have we received in return?

A shortage of Personal Protective Equipment for our frontline staff. An absolutely decimated care system (but they got a badge, pip-pip and hurray!). The fifth-highest death rate per capita in the world. 85,000 fewer daily tests than promised by Matt Hancock, our Health Secretary, with increasingly less chance of hitting that target by the end of April.

And no exit strategy.

I appreciate that losing the Prime Minister to the coronavirus must have been dire. To lose the leader of the country in the middle of the worst pandemic of a generation would throw any government off. But why is Johnson the only world leader so far to get it?

Hubris.

While unlucky, Johnson clearly didn’t take this virus seriously and recklessly exposed himself to it. It goes without saying that I am extremely glad to see him making a speedy recovery, as should we all be. But when he was boasting about shaking hands with hospital workers as late as March, the writing was already on the wall.

I am also not the only one to note that he and his government failed to take the coronavirus seriously until it was far too late. An absolutely eviscerating Sunday Times investigation found that the Tories systematically missed opportunities to prepare for this virus. It reports that Johnson delegated the chairing of COBRA meetings to Hancock or Gove, spent weeks away from the limelight to shield himself from criticism over flooding, and was more interested in achieving his Brexit goals and announcing his engagement than focussing on this new, dangerous virus.

To compound matters, the government has released a long, poorly-written and sanctimonious response to the investigation, which makes it sound more like a stroppy teenager than a functioning government.

To be clear, they have devoted the time and resources of their communications department to say, “Oh shut up, leave me alone, you’re not my Dad,” to investigative journalists, in the middle of the peak of a global pandemic.

But that, of course, is just one example of a far wider malaise at the heart of the government’s communications strategy. The rules about the closure of restaurants and bars were infuriatingly vague. The rules around lockdown were so poorly communicated that some local police forces have gone full George Orwell. Our daily press briefings flicker between self-aggrandising statements of supposed victories and deflecting all criticism and tricky questions.

Because that’s what this government was elected on – a mandate of obfuscatory and misleading information, never acknowledging mistakes, and never, ever saying sorry.

And don’t get me wrong, not all of this situation is this government’s direct fault. They weren’t the ones in charge when pandemic planning resources were diverted to No-Deal Brexit preparations. Boris Johnson didn’t write out the policy of capping nurses’ salaries. This Cabinet weren’t the ones who crippled the care system by creating the policy of austerity.

But I tell you what: they all voted for it.

Every last one of them, while not Prime Minister, bears some responsibility for this perfect storm of an NHS on its knees during an unprecedented global health crisis. As do Labour, of course. The years under the ideological supremacy of Corbyn are barely forgivable. At least a grown-up is opposite the dispatch box now, at long last.

And yet they hide away from responsibility, still. For all of their withering claims that they’re “Following the science,” it is not the scientists who make the decisions. Science of this nature, predictive modelling and educated guess-work, cannot be definitive by nature. Every model to try and find a strategy is intensely variable, hence the “herd immunity” U-turn.

And how do we improve the science? By increasing testing. Report after report after report has emerged of independent labs contacting the government to help create coronavirus tests (and, indeed, PPE), only for them to not be responded to, or told that they’ll be contacted when needed. European initiatives have been avoided. International collaboration has been shunned as far as possible. Only now are we asking for help.

Why?

We all know why. Because this government is a one-trick pony, slavishly devoted to the ideological pursuit of British exceptionalism and individualism in a globalised world. Globalisation has undoubtedly caused a myriad of problems as unbridled corporations monopolise technology and innovation markets, and the working classes are increasingly feeling left behind. But, in an emergency such as this, we are shown firsthand how important it is that we all work together.

This government would rather we be isolated, and all because of a rose-tinted, feckless adoration of the notion of “Rule Britannia.”

We are led by the most feeble bunch of politicians in a generation. You could say that it’s unfortunate that we’ve got them now, rather than in a more stable time. But if you elect someone based on their attitude to immigration rather than their competency at running a country during a crisis, then this is the result.

This coronavirus was always going to kill thousands of people around the world. It was always going to kill thousands of people in the United Kingdom.

But the inability, the inaction and the ineptitude of our government’s response to it has almost certainly led to deaths that could have been avoided, not least those of our frontline NHS staff.

They might be trying their best. But I don’t care: it simply isn’t good enough.

The inevitable inquiry will be savage. But it might, just might, show this bunch of charlatans for what they really are.

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