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In any other year, it would be trite and lazy to be already writing about Christmas when we are still only in October. Yet in 2020 the subject cannot be avoided. If you think Boris Johnson has stranded himself on the wrong side of the argument over Marcus Rashford’s holiday school meals campaign, wait until you think about the Christmas car crash towards which he and his government are now foolishly speeding.
Christmas is less than two months away. This year, it beckons more than usually as a moment of balm, hope and connection amid grim and disorientated times. Yet Britain’s surging rate of second-wave Covid cases is getting out of control. The test-and-trace system is failing. Coronavirus restrictions across Britain are a confusing tangle. Unless he is extremely lucky, Johnson is hurtling towards an unwanted choice between imposing a Christmas lockdown and permitting a Christmas viral explosion in the population. The wrong decision here would make his mishandling of the Rashford campaign look like a pre-season warm-up.
To be fair to Johnson, he is not the only politician facing an unenviable choice about the second wave. Leaders across Europe and beyond are also grappling with comparable dilemmas. Emmanuel Macron spent Wednesday preparing an expected new French lockdown announcement of at least a month. Angela Merkel spent the day in a conference call with regional leaders on a common approach to Germany’s lucrative but potentially lethal Christmas celebrations. Meanwhile in the polarised United States, the festive season hardly bears thinking about, whatever the result of next week’s election.
Yet Johnson cannot expect to receive a free pass simply because Covid is a global threat. Here in Britain we face particular problems of our own, to which Johnson has conspicuously failed to rise during the pandemic. Even so, he is not alone here either. All governments at local and national level face a familiar balancing act between public health precautions and the encouragement of economic activity. But, under Britain’s broken constitutional arrangements, the public is being very badly served in an increasingly dangerous pandemic situation. Johnson is not the only one to blame for that.
The most striking fact about Britain and the pandemic is that the Covid problems are broadly the same in every part of the country. That is hardly surprising. We all live in much the same place. The range of people’s lifestyles are broadly comparable. Covid levels have risen, subsided and now risen again together. The successes and failures have much in common too. The idea that Scotland or Wales has handled the pandemic better than England – as opposed to handling the politics and the messaging of the pandemic better – is hard to square with the general upsurge of cases.
This is emphatically not an argument against devolution. But it is an argument for better cooperation. As the Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin said last week, a day after taking the republic back into a national lockdown, we live in shared islands. On Covid, we face shared problems in England, Scotland, Wales and in both parts of Ireland. So it makes overwhelming sense for the governments to try to align their approaches as much as possible, not to insist on doing things in different ways when it can be avoided.
It passed almost without comment at the time, but it was ridiculous that England should have adopted a three-tier response to the current phase of the crisis, while Scotland is about to have a five-tier approach (as the Irish Republic also does) and Wales currently operates a nationwide lockdown. What is the point, in public health terms, of the narcissism of such differences? Surely the UK nations still have sufficient in common that, perhaps in consultation with the Irish Republic, they could agree on a common set of restriction tiers, with the differences between the tiers clearly spelled out, which the individual nations and their systems of local government would then manage as they see fit?
A common set of tiers would not necessarily mean a common approach – though there would not be much wrong with that. People certainly say they want politicians to come together. It might also encourage the sharing of ideas and best practice. But standardised tiers would definitely be more understandable to the public, who are increasingly saying they are confused about the rules, and people would be able to move from one part of the islands to another with a clearer appreciation of what was involved.
Nowhere is this issue bigger or more urgent than in relation to Christmas, when more people normally move about the country than usual, when students travel home, and when people shop, party and get together with greater intensity than at any other time of year. No British politician, least of all Johnson, is going to do an Oliver Cromwell and cancel Christmas, and nor should they. Civil disobedience would inevitably follow on a daunting scale.
All the same, Christmas 2020 is a public health disaster waiting to happen unless the authorities raise their game, and do it together. This issue cannot be put off. The Liberal Democrats in Britain and the Alliance party in Northern Ireland are spot-on with their call on Wednesday for a four-nation summit to consider a joint approach towards the many challenges of a Covid Christmas. Other parties, north and south, east and west, should back the call. This is an ideal opportunity for an intensive citizens’ assembly too, to help build trust.
For this to work, politicians must leave their pride at the door. The chances of that would normally be slim. But the demand for a people’s Christmas is going to grow and the risks of it all going wrong are very great. If not now, when?
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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