Boris Johnson’s obsession with obtaining a Brexit deal in June has over-ridden the need to act decisively in response to coronavirus. But the signs of panic are emerging, writes Denis MacShane.
Denis MacShane was a Labour MP for 18 years and was Minister for European Affairs under Tony Blair.
Order. Counter-order. Disorder. Never before has the British government seemed so confused and incoherent as it struggles to deal with coronavirus.
Two weeks ago Boris Johnson was smiling at the world as he announced the arrival of his latest child mothered by his latest girlfriend.
Last week different government scientists and medical experts appeared on television announcing policy and then turning around 180 degrees to announce new guidelines.
Other countries in Europe were applying stringent measures like closing schools, holiday resorts, closing frontiers, banning big sporting events or concerts, or even restaurants and bars in an effort to slow down the spread of the virus. This policy was based on what seems to have worked in Taiwan and South Korea and after a disastrous start in China when giant public events were allowed to take place in Wuhan earlier this year.
But in Britain, the view was the Coronavirus should be allowed to spread with up to 60% of the population becoming infected. The theory was they would get so-called “herd immunity” and thus be protected.
This started a panic run in super-markets which were emptied of toilet paper or dry foods in minutes after they opened.
On Sunday, Downing Street used one of its favourite loyal journalists to announce that everyone older than 70 would be told to stay inside their home as a safety measure.
Then ministers contradicted themselves and said older people would be allowed out to take their dogs for a walk in the park.
Public opinion is very unhappy at the endless contradictory measures and failure of Johnson to be out in front like President Macron or Chancellor Merkel in explaining what the policy was and what people should do. In Scotland, the pro-EU government under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ignored Johnson and announced stronger measures banning big gatherings along the lines of continental Europe.
There was considerable self-satisfaction in conservative and anti-European circles that President Trump announced a flight ban on citizens from the EU in the Schengen zone but exempted British citizens.
That line then had to be reversed as the crisis in the United States intensified into a national emergency shortly after Trump had dismissed Covid19 as no worse than flu. As New York and Los Angeles followed the lead from Europe and closed restaurants and shut down sporting events, Trump was forced to reverse his policy and ban flights from Britain.
Suddenly the Trump-Johnson axis in place since the Brexit plebiscite in 2016 looked weak as a panicked Trump adopted a policy of sauve qui peut.
Johnson also is panicking. The decade of harsh austerity ideology in Britain since the right won power in 2010 has left the nation’s medical services weakened. There are only 4084 intensive care beds equipped with ventilators and proper respiratory equipment should any of Britain’s 8.3 million citizens aged 70 or over become seriously ill from Covid19.
Meanwhile, Johnson has 25,000 civil servants working 24 hours a day on his Brexit project. They have endless funds as Johnson insists that Brexit must happen on his terms by the end of June. The 200 EU and UK negotiators have suspended their planned meetings because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Johnson insists in every interview that the UK will have broken all trade and other relations with Europe based on existing rules by the middle of the year.
The European Medicines Agency has been forced to leave London and Johnson is refusing to participate in the EU emergency programme for vaccine development. British hospitals lack thousands of doctors and nurses but Johnson is insisting that no European medical professional can come and work in Britain unless they pay for special work and residence visas and are paid a high wage.
The government’s ministerial council on Brexit consists only of anti-European ideologues appointed by Johnson to fashion the most hard of Brexits.
The economy is slowing down fast. Airlines have announced most flights out of the UK will stop. The dreams of a “Global Britain” or a new Empire 2.0 of English-speaking nations led by a London that had cuts all links with Europe are evaporating fast. Sick pay for British workers is €103 a week but the average rent is €210 a week. The economy of social capitalism – restaurant, bars, pubs, cinemas, discotheques, sports events, spending money outside the home – is disappearing as frightened people stay at home.
There are no measures to compensate them as the political children and grandchildren of Margaret Thatcher have been inoculated against any idea of state and society as only private accumulation and an Enrichessez-vous culture has existed in Britain for 40 years.
Johnson is lucky that the Labour Party has all but disappeared as party members elect a new leader in April to replace Jeremy Corbyn who led Labour to its worst defeat in 80 years in December. None of the three candidates to replace Corbyn has said anything much on Coronavirus or on Brexit. The vacuum of leadership on the democratic left in Britain is as bad as anywhere in Europe. All of Europe is sick. But England under Johnson seems sicker than most.