Where are we going?
‘Don’t visit your mum,’ Boris Johnson said at the weekend. Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, announced plans to ‘shield’ the vulnerable – requiring 1.5 million people to stay in their homes with minimal contact with the outside world for at least 12 weeks. Jenrick, like all frontline politicians announcing policy, is fond of the present continuous – ‘we are writing to these people’ – seeking to combine the rhetorical appeal of the right now with a more loosely defined future.
On Monday, news channels showed Matt Hancock moving boxes of personal protective equipment from a warehouse to a truck. He admitted that there had been a problem with distribution. Last Thursday evening, a London hospital had to declare a ‘critical incident’ after running out of critical care beds. Social media streams are filled with reports from paramedics about missing equipment and sharing masks. Spain meanwhile (to take one example) has ordered 640,000 testing kits from China. International comparisons have become an inevitable part of the response and interpretation of the crisis. Should Britain continue along its own peculiar furrow or be more like Italy, France, Germany, China or South Korea? Also from Spain, there are disturbing reports of residents being left ‘dead and abandoned’ in at least three care homes. Where are we going?
On Monday night, Johnson’s address to the nation announced a lockdown that will never be officially called a lockdown though everyone was expecting it. The prime minister was unflanked and read directly from the autocue. There was no ‘turning the tide in twelve weeks’ moment, no see-saw between sentimental pessimism and bullish optimism, no Johnsonian exuberance.
On Tuesday morning, Michael Gove was sent out to explain the terms of the lockdown, which was already plainly incoherent. On GMTV, he was grilled by Piers Morgan, Susanna Reid and the show’s resident doctor. Why should most building work continue? What made it different from anything else? Was there a distinction between ongoing improvements to existing buildings and new builds? Or between public and private projects? Gove did his best to sound plausible and kept calling for ‘common sense’ but the government criteria never became clear. Another crux concerned the children of separated parents. Must they now stay with the parent they’re currently with for the duration? Yes, Gove said on ITV. But an hour later, he told the BBC that that his earlier advice had been wrong and children could spend time with both parents. As he was speaking, a headline about 13 cases of Covid-19 at a care home in Sussex streamed across the screen.
It’s easy to sound nit-picking. The crisis really is unprecedented. Getting everything right, all at once, is impossible. But the same problems seem to be surfacing over and over. The swinging between ‘we can do it’ and the invocation of dark times ahead is a crude attempt to ‘manage’ our responses. But its main effects seems to be to encourage panic buying and crowded beaches.
The British government’s unwillingness to act quickly and decisively over the last weeks, in clear opposition to a stockpile of evidence from other countries, stemmed from a familiar but in this case deadly combination of national exceptionalism, proud do-nothingism and a desire to keep the economy going for as long as possible – and perhaps steal a march on other countries in the aftermath.
Even now it seems that these strategies have not been altogether abandoned. It’s hard to see why building work should continue. Rishi Sunak’s plan to continue to pay employees 80 per cent of their salaries (up to a maximum of £2500 a month) via their employers presumes that ‘businesses’ are always more responsible than workers. The government’s difficulty in coming up with a means of protecting the self-employed, many of them precarious workers, seems, at least in part, to be based on an assumption that some people would benefit who don’t deserve to. Even at this moment of crisis, there are traces of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving. In the Commons yesterday, Sunak described ‘the challenge that we have in designing something that gets to the people that we want it to help whilst at the same time being affordable, not having to benefit absolutely everybody’.
‘Affordability’ as a criterion in the context of the billions that have been promised over recent weeks seems absurd, and the awkward phrasing of ‘not having to benefit absolutely everybody’ suggests an anxiety about giving out to those who might be considered undeserving. This at a time when the Pets4Homes boss thought that some of his employees should be classified as key workers so their children could continue at school so he could demand their presence in the workplace. Or when the Weatherspoons boss, Tim Martin, who last week threatened to keep his pubs open, yesterday told his workers that he won’t pay them beyond 22 March and they should go and work at Tesco. After Johnson’s lockdown announcement, the Sports Direct boss, Mike Ashley, reckoned his shops could stay open alongside food shops and pharmacies – though he backed down in response to the outrage. Amazon, inevitably at the heart of any distribution ‘solution’ in these times, won’t let the safety of its workers to get in the way of their stow rates. Wars always have their profiteers.
The wartime script has been consciously adopted not only by the government but by much of the media. Johnson’s address to the nation on Monday night made full use of it. ‘Protect our NHS’ is the current form of ‘defend the nation.’ The illusion of that demand is that we are all, in at least two respects, equal: equally worth saving and equally able to make the best contribution we can for the good of all. This is fundamentally true, but the government has gone out of its way to differentiate the old from the young and the obviously vulnerable from the overtly healthy – as if the deaths of the elderly and those with underlying health conditions were to be expected and, by implication, not such a great loss. It is still fighting the report that Dominic Cummings initially argued that ‘if some pensioners die then too bad’.
Hostile classifications of many kinds have been fostered by the government and its agencies over the past 10 years: between the deserving and undeserving poor, between leavers and remainers (or traitors), between genuine asylum seekers and other migrants, between the people and the elite. These hostilities are also playing their part in some of the malign actions we are seeing. A paramedic was evicted from his flat because his landlady feared he might spread the virus: for some people, a key worker isn’t someone who is going to help you – and possibly save your life while risking their own – but a potential source of contagion to be kicked onto the street. Six ambulances were sabotaged in Kent over the weekend: for some, ‘our’ NHS is something to be not protected but attacked.
Johnson, Gove and Hancock call on the population to think of others. But this government and the three that preceded it have done the exact opposite of that. Many of those who have suffered most under ‘austerity’ are now identified as key workers: whether they are overstretched doctors or outsourced hospital cleaners, distribution workers on zero-hours contracts, carers on minimum wage, or nurses expected to train without bursaries. Whether or not the government believes they have value, the most important thing it can do now is listen to what they’re saying and take their advice.