Jack Clayton discusses the government's handling of the pandemic and the dangers of Johnson's indecision.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly been a colossal challenge for the world and the leaders who have been tasked to handle it. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis and its fatal consequences understandably created panic. It is also in everybody’s interest that the infection rates lower and that the pandemic ends as soon as possible. Therefore, regardless of political persuasion, the vast majority of people want the government to succeed. There is a feeling that this is necessary to say because even in a public health crisis, all of us to an extent individually base our judgement of the British government’s handling of covid-19 on pre-pandemic political views.
This was partly the effect of British politics becoming bitterly divided by Brexit which has toxified debate for the past four and a half years. This division spilt into the pandemic when Cummings breached lockdown rules and supporters of the government and Brexit defended him, whilst those who already disliked him were outraged. We can consequently find it difficult to find objectivity when evaluating the government’s approach to covid-19, and many distrust critics and defenders of the government. Critics claim Johnson is an incompetent prime minister, and his ardent supporters defend him. However, what should unite and alarm people about Johnson’s handling of covid-19, is his indecision and multiple U-turns and the dangers it poses.
Johnson’s indecision has visibly caused uncertainty and anxiety to the public and businesses because of sudden strategy changes. This was demonstrated during the period leading up to Christmas when people were allowed to be outdoors until on short notice restrictions were reimposed. Consequently, it chaotically prompted many Britons to desperately get home to their families, which sadly increased the risk of transmitting covid-19. In the new year, schools were closed after a day of being open and the government had previously threatened legal action against schools to force them to open. The mental health implications on parents and teachers concerned about children’s safety, and the short notice closures that forced changes of plans around their busy lives is palpable. Most infamously was Johnson’s address instructing people to go out to work but work from home if possible. (Cue Matt Lucas).
As we enter a third lockdown, there is often focus on the behaviour of the public and how well we adhere to personal responsibility, but inadequate scrutiny of Johnson’s decision-making, or its process. He even receives sympathy from many because it is difficult. Sympathy on one level is understandable because as mentioned, we want him to succeed in ending the pandemic. Nevertheless, sympathy becomes detrimental to objectively assessing his performance when people say things like “anybody would struggle”. It is unhelpful because it portrays Johnson like any Briton addressing the pandemic. However, he is prime minister, who receives information about covid-19 sooner than the public. Johnson also has the mechanisms of government to distribute resources to hospitals, health workers and communication strategies on what to do. With those resources, he told us to “stay alert”. Johnson’s indecisiveness has led to implementing measures to contain covid-19 too slowly and confusing the public about what to do, who have later been blamed.
A subsequent danger of Johnson’s indecision is his diminishing credibility when he makes future decisions. Specifically, it gives credence to angry opinions that are against science and public health that claim to care about human rights being violated by lockdowns. It is not worth engaging too deeply with this argument, but if a large proportion of people get ill from covid-19 and fill up hospitals, then people’s human right to healthcare will be violated. More to the point, a danger of Johnson’s decreasing credibility because of his inconsistency, is the credence it gives to anti-lockdown and anti-public health advocates. That is not a defence of these views, but the reality is that if Johnson cannot form a coherent strategy, extreme misleading opinions will penetrate.
The other threat posed by Johnson’s indecision and his haphazard lockdowns, is for analysts and the general public to lose sight of the current challenges. The third lockdown has encouraged analogies and a group mentality that it is like the first one and almost a return to the status quo. The situation though has evolved, and new facts have come to light, some of which are positive, some that are not. The positive is that in this lockdown, there are vaccines to distribute which will hopefully in the not too distant future decrease the threat of covid-19. The concern is that there is a new covid-19 variant. The infection and death rates are also worse than the beginning of the pandemic, but instead there is a mood of fatigue and frustration rather than urgency.
Therefore, a new lockdown is not a return to the status quo, and we may even need to approach the lockdown differently to before and have it to last even longer. The government though have risked analogical thinking which could create two problems. The first, as sad as it sounds is, giving people too much hope that if we behave the same as before, things will just improve. The second problem that provoking analogies has caused is anti-lockdown groups to become more entrenched in their views because using their logic, if the situation is worse now than before, lockdowns do not work. This is untrue, as cases have decreased during lockdowns, but that does not make them less vocal. Ultimately, complex problems requires considered thinking. The responsible action would not have been setting big promises, targets, and different deadlines to people, but step by step updates and contingency plans that a long-term timetable can be developed from. A transparent thread for the public to follow would make clearer what is allowed and what is not and create a more disciplined strategy.
Throughout the pandemic however, Johnson and his thinking has too often been dictated by events, rather than the other way round because of his indecision. It is a reminder that failure in political leadership happens because they cannot decisively lead.
Jack Clayton is a Young Fabians member and International Relations PhD SOAS student researching US foreign policy. He tweets at @claytonj944.