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One common definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different result. It also appears to be a guiding principle behind government policy that Boris Johnson is testing to destruction. Right now it’s hard to think of anything the government is managing to do with even a basic level of competency.
Other countries appear to be able to run an efficient test-and-trace system. The UK, not so much. Scarcely a day goes by without some cock-up at a private laboratory. This week it was revealed that 16,000 positive results were omitted from the national statistics because of an out-of-date spreadsheet. And just this morning, it was announced that the test-and-trace service had recorded its worst proportion of contacts it has managed to trace.
For weeks if not months now, mayors and council leaders from cities in the north and the Midlands that are under local lockdown have been begging the government to consult them before taking any further action in their communities. But on the very day when it was revealed that the rate of infection had risen significantly in 19 of the 20 regions under lockdown restrictions, the government chose to brief the national media that further measures would be introduced next week without even bothering to tell the people in charge of running those areas. Nor giving them a whisper of what financial support, if any, would be on offer for those businesses affected.
Understandably almost every mayor and council leader, with the exception of Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands and close ally of Boris, has gone ballistic. While Street was using his Twitter account to extol the virtues of both walking to school and its “Gateway Construction” scheme, the Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham was in near meltdown. He tweeted: “No discussion. No consultation. Millions of lives affected by Whitehall diktat. It is proving impossible to deal with this Government.” Burnham’s sentiments were quickly echoed by the Liverpool mayor, Steve Rotherham, Newcastle city council leader, Nick Forbes, Nottingham council leader, David Mellen, and the Labour MP and Sheffield mayor, Dan Jarvis, .
The incompetence at work here seems almost wilfully self-destructive. The government has had months of bad news headlines, so why actively chase even more? Why leak a story that not only seems bound to turn the next few days into party central, with people taking their pleasures while they still can, but also seems certain to increase the infection rate in the short term?
Even a five minute chat with local leaders could have been a win-win for Johnson. If it turned out that they came up with a more effective, better targeted plan, then the government would have got credit with its “red wall” supporters both for reaching out to their communities and for reducing the infection rates. And if after all the consultation, the net result was that no one was able to come up with a better plan than the one already dreamed up in Westminster, then at least the government would have had someone with whom to share the blame.
But the only possible conclusions are that the government has totally lost all grip on reality and/or that it actually doesn’t give much of a toss. A possibility that seemed all the more plausible by its decision to send out the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, on the morning media round. Now I know every cabinet minister has to take their turn and that the gene pool of talent is thinly spread, but with Jenrick you really are scraping the barrel. This is the man, don’t forget, who broke the lockdown rules to drive 300 miles to his third home to deliver some paracetamol to his parents and unlawfully overruled a planning refusal for the Tory donor Richard Desmond. A decision that saved Dirty Des £50m.
In some politicians, it’s a necessary contrivance to play dumb when faced with a series of tricky interviews. For Honest Bob it’s the only way he knows how to roll. Asked why the government was planning to bring in new measures without consulting the regions concerned, Jenrick’s stock answer was that nothing had yet been decided and in any case, even if it had been, then he would be the last person to know about it. How about new the traffic light scheme? Honest Bob merely shrugged. No idea at all. These are the first traffic lights that will be phased red, very red and very, very red.
“So you’ve come on here to say nothing,” said an exasperated Charlie Stayt of the BBC. Jenrick looked blank. Of course he had. Neither could he give any evidence for any of the measures the government was planning to bring in. It was a need-to-know basis and his colleagues had long since decided he didn’t need to know anything.
Just about the best explanation for the change of measures that he had already professed to know nothing about was that they were “commonsensical”. . They had initially closed the bars and restaurants at 10pm because it was well known that the virus was vampiric and only came out late at night. Now there was new data that the virus might actually be out and about a bit earlier.
Time and again, as Keir Starmer had with the prime minister the day before, the interviewers asked for evidence. Wasn’t it more the case that virus was spreading more in homes, university halls of residence, care homes and hospitals rather than in bars? So why pick on them? In the absence of a vaccine, wasn’t an effective test-and-trace system the best way to minimise the effects of the pandemic?
Time and again Honest Bob merely went into shut down. Probably the best place for him. And us. But at a time when the country is heading for a second wave and appears to have learned very little from its previous mistakes, it might have been nice to have a minister who could offer some hope or reassurance. Even Liz Truss might have done a bit better. Then again …
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ably led by Honest Bob Jenrick, the government plumbs new depths | Coronavirus outbreak