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Charlie Williams lost his father to Covid-19 early in the pandemic, when he succumbed to the virus in a care home during the first wave. According to Charlie, his father’s death was manslaughter perpetrated by a government that bears “criminal” responsibility for the level of deaths over the past year. Charlie’s main focus now, as a member of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, is to force those in power to take responsibility for what they have done.
Speaking to him is like flicking on a light switch and illuminating all that has been lost in our rolling, fractious national discussion about lockdown and the economy. Here it is: the grief, the rage, the shock that the nightmare is still continuing despite our belief during the first wave that things couldn’t possibly get worse. Alongside Williams’s determination is a sense of bewilderment at how little the government seems to be suffering in terms of public opinion. He has all the detail of the past few months at his fingertips; all the moments when the government minimised the threat, dithered or made disastrous decisions, such as the one to discharge patients straight back into care homes. When I ask him why, despite the British death toll passing the 100,000 mark, the Tories still have a plurality of the public on their side, he says: “That’s the million-dollar question. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.”
The polls remain stubbornly, shockingly, in the Tories’ favour. Like a reading from a broken thermometer, their approval rating is stuck at 40% or thereabouts, registering little of how this government’s handling of the pandemic has exposed it to be incompetent, corrupt and mendacious. Just as the extraordinary death toll has crept up on us, a realisation has dawned that the government will face no immediate punishment for its role in placing the UK at the top of the global death rate table. It’s staggering for those at the sharp end of the pandemic, who have lost family members, friends or livelihoods, and can see the government getting away with it in broad daylight. It’s as though the moral laws of the universe have been suspended.
There’s no one reason for the seeming absence of a backlash. Some of that support is from dyed-in-the-wool Tories, the sort of voter whose analogue is the American evangelical Christian who would vote against Jesus himself if he ran as a Democrat. Apart from that, the Tories benefit from a sort of wartime effect, whereby we rally around the incumbent rather than risk even more volatility. For others, there may be a fear of admitting there is in fact no grownup in charge. Like an incompetent parent whose children are willing him to succeed, Boris Johnson is often depicted as being in the throes of finally living up to his office. You can’t punish someone whose deficiency of character you are determined to deny.
But beyond the whims of voters, justice needs an infrastructure via which it can be demanded and delivered, and ours is rickety. It needs media that are not compromised by credulity or ideological fellow feeling – not media that, even when they criticise, always stop short of demanding regime change. Justice needs an opposition party that is not fully signed up to all the procedural politesse of our system, and it needs a robust culture of extra-party political campaigning that disrupts the compact of the political elite. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, increasing in number across the UK and denied a meeting by Johnson six times, provides a glimpse of what that culture might look like.
Justice needs time, of course. It doesn’t happen simply as a result of the sheer accumulation of evidence. The facts may be damning, but they have to be marshalled into an account that can challenge the government narrative. Justice is often imperfect, too, subject to compromise and concession. That is something the Families for Justice understand well. They’re not focusing on getting Johnson to resign. They realise that it’s all far bigger than that. They don’t want retribution; they want meaningful reform.
To Marie Espley-Atkins, who lost her father during the second wave, any inquiry has to go beyond holding the government to account. The only solace to be found in the death of her father is the hope that the entire ecosystem that created the circumstances for his death – a stretched NHS, a society and political system that cares more about the economy than saving lives – can be exposed. Before she can mourn, she says, she needs “to channel” her rage somehow.
It is easy to see the thousands of unnecessary deaths on the one hand, and the government’s continued popularity on the other, and conclude that there is no hope of a reckoning. But we have no choice but to keep pushing for one, and to make its parameters as wide as possible. It cannot just be a paper exercise with a set of neat “lessons learned”. An inquiry should mark just the beginning of a colossal national exercise in self-scrutiny that encompasses everything from cronyism to funding for the health service. It must be one that fortifies against this sort of tragedy happening again. A long, drawn-out process during which those responsible will be reabsorbed into new jobs or given sinecures is not enough.
Because that is how governments and state institutions “weaponise time”, as Williams told me. There is a lesson in that for those of us despairing of justice. Channel the pain. Connect with others. By the time an inquiry comes along, a large network held together by grief and rage should be enough to shape the sort of justice that it can mete out.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: There is a way to make this government face justice over the Covid tragedy | Coronavirus