Richard North, 17/03/2020  

If you half listen to the prime minister, letting the noises he makes wash over you rather than trying to listen to his words, there are times when he is particularly animated that he sounds distinctly like a duck. It's an ugly sound.

Thus, during his press conference yesterday, he told us "we want to fight back against this disease". We had to back our business and back our economy. "Quack, quack, quack". The only real difference is that a duck probably makes more sense.

Vallance reminds one of a rather nervous chipmunk but, of the trio of Johnson, himself and Whitty, he is perhaps the closest approximation to a human being – in shape at least. As for Whitty, but for his balding head, he looks rather like a gauche child whose frugal parents have bought him a suit of clothes a size too big in the hope that he will grow into them.

What they had in common yesterday was that they all delivered noise. To label what they gave us as "words" is vastly to exaggerate the value of what came from their mouths. Words, after all convey intelligence, they have coherence and they provide information. None of those things was evident at the press conference.

Latterly, Johnson pledged to give daily updates, in which he was going to show his "thinking" as clearly as possible. In view of past performance though, that would be a grave mistake. The result could only be long periods of silence.

Despite the quacking, though, we found that Johnson wasn't closing anything down, nor was he quarantining whole families if one member got sick. Still less was he ordering the over-70s to stay indoors forever, or 12 weeks or four months – or even not at all. Not that any of that was actually happening.

It was Vicky Young for the BBC who stripped away the edifice to expose the emptiness. These weren't orders from government. For instance, it was giving "very strong advice that public venues such as theatres should no longer be visited". "As for enforcement", Johnson said, "we have the powers if necessary, er, but I don't believe it will be necessary to use those powers".

Of course, the government does have those powers. They are embodied in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which allows ministers, in the event that an emergency occurs, to make emergency regulations "for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency".

Should such powers have been invoked, as business owners and their representatives have been quick to point out, those experiencing financial distress, and those who have to take action with financial consequences (such as cancelling contracts) have at least some cover. They will have been compelled to take action and can claim force majeure. In some cases, they might be able to gain relief from insurers.

But, for some reason, Johnson has set his face (or one of them) against the idea of compulsion. It could be that he would have had to assume responsibility for his actions. And, as we all know, Johnson doesn't do responsibility.  

Robert Peston noted that all the measures were voluntary, but also observed that some countries had introduced criminal sanctions. When he asked how likely it was that they will be introduced here, Johnson burbled that, "We are a mature, grown-up and liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice that is being given to them".

No one was unkind enough (at that particular point) to tell the prime minister that, even as he spoke, thousands of members of this "mature, grown-up and liberal democracy" were stripping out toilet rolls from supermarket aisles, leaving the shelves bare.

But, no sooner was this mountain of noise left to subside and decay, we got the official guidance on the government website, with some heady "advice" on "social distancing", as well as "protecting older people and vulnerable adults".

As one might imagine, "older people" who have been "advised" to stay at home (if indeed they have, as the advice only applies to people with underlying health conditions) might have a little difficulty obtaining foods and medicines. But never fear, the prime minister's no doubt "fantastic" team has the answer.

For assistance, all those people need to do is "ask family, friends and neighbours to support you and use online services". If this is not possible – which, of course it won't be, then they can be comforted by the thought that "the public sector, business, charities, and the general public are gearing up to help those advised to stay at home".

"It is important", these fortunate people are told, "to speak to others and ask them to help you to make arrangements for the delivery of food, medicines and essential services and supplies, and look after your physical and mental health and wellbeing".

Thus, at a stroke, anything up to ten million confused and needy people are under the impression that they are expected to throw themselves at the mercy of "the public sector, business, charities, and the general public" to obtain their essential supplies of food and medicine.

Small wonder Johnson didn't want to make isolation compulsory, or even make it clear what is wanted. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of starving people would have to be rescued from their homes. Protected from the deadly coronavirus, they would be brought down by famine.

And that is what turns Johnson's burbling into noise. There is no thinking there, no planning, no serious intent. The idea that up to ten million people can suddenly be confined to their homes, for a lengthy period, and that provisions can be made for their support, is pure fantasy - and, as it turned out, wasn't even proposed. Yet, at best, there would have been only minimal take-up of any "advice". If we did self-isolate, mass starvation would result.

But what goes for keeping the geriatrics at home also applies to just about everything the government touches. For instance, BuzzFeed News is excitedly telling us that the government's outbreak control strategy would "likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths", to which one can only respond, Who knew?

BuzzFeed in the manner of the legacy media, is sucking at the "prestige" tit, relies on a report published by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team. But this tired old ex-sanitary inspector, saw it coming and didn't mince words about the outcome.

You don't need computer modelling, institutional prestige or yards of letters after your name to recognise stupidity when you see it. Yet what has been obvious from the outset seems to have evaded all these high-profile scientific gurus, right up to the point that the government changes tack because it realises it is about to perpetrate mass slaughter.

Even then the medical community is being left in the lurch by a government totally unprepared for this epidemic and unable to turn spin into action. Doctors and nurses are thus warning that frontline NHS staff are at risk of dying from Covid-19 after the protective gear requirements for health workers treating those infected were downgraded last week, and even the basic equipment is running short.

When the medical profession is even losing confidence in the government, we are looking at a very serious deterioration in the management of this epidemic. But all we get from Johnson and his stooges is bullshit layered on bullshit.

I think we have to get used to the idea here that the government (as with Brexit) simply doesn't have a credible plan. And in the absence of sufficient capability to deal with this crisis, Johnson is doing what he always does, he plays it off the cuff and resorts to BS.

As ten million people are about to find out, though, Johnson's "advice" is just so much hot air. What he's doing isn't going to work: as one of my readers observes, you can't bullshit a virus.

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