Richard North, 11/05/2020  

According to prime minister Johnson, in his address to the nation yesterday, the only way to defeat the coronavirus is for us to put up with restrictions on our freedom and all the hardships of social distancing.

This is what the man said. Presumably, he's had all the time he needed to draft his speech. And there's no sign of his mind having been taken over by aliens or of his being held hostage by cabinet factions, so there is no evidence of coercion. One must, therefore, assume that Johnson means what he says – as far as he has ever done.

But, if he genuinely believes the lockdown and the accompanying social distancing will secure the defeat of "the most vicious threat this country has faced" in his lifetime, then we have a serious problem.

Even in his own terms, the purpose of the lockdown was to prevent the blessed NHS from being overwhelmed, so that it could continue to slaughter its patients at a measured rate. And only last Monday, he was insisting that a vaccine was "the only way we will win".

With that in mind, he could have told us that he wanted us to endure the lockdown to buy time for the boffins to develop the silver bullet, but perhaps when he came to write yesterday's speech, he's already forgotten what he had said last Monday. Or perhaps he no longer believed what he had said.

More probably, while the Monday Johnson was in statesman mode, speaking to an international conference, the Sunday version was the man of the people, thanking us for our sacrifices, for preventing half a million fatalities and for protecting the blessed NHS.

Briefly pausing to patronise us all by telling us that: "I know - you know" it would be "madness now to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike", he dropped effortlessly into "we" mode, grandly unveiling his slogan of such monstrous vacuity that he had to rush out with a Twitter post earlier in the day to explain what it meant.

"We must stay alert", he declared. "We must continue to control the virus, and save lives" – the curtain-raiser to his offering "the shape of a plan" to address the fears of "millions of people".

Here was The Dear Leader, in all his fulsome majesty, reaching out to the tired, the poor and the huddled masses, "who are both fearful of this terrible disease, and at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing", and "to their futures and the futures of their children".

And with this not-a-plan but the shape of a plan, he was planning: "both to beat the virus and provide the first sketch of a road map for reopening society". So there we had it: "the shape of a plan to provide the first sketch of a road map". It's no wonder the Guardian cartoonist had a field day.

After promising to set out more details in parliament (today) and taking questions from the public in the evening, he sped onto a comment that certainly raised some eyebrows. "I have consulted across the political spectrum", he said, "across all four nations of the UK".

Given that the other three "nations" have rejected his new slogan, this reminds me of a cartoon I once saw, where an angry woman shopper was pictured at the complaints desk of an up-market store, returning a product. She was being addressed by an insouciant young man, the caption having him say: "Laboratory tested? Of course it was tested, Madam. It failed dismally, but it was tested".

Johnson's new "shape of a plan", it seems, has been tested to destruction. "I believe that as prime minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland", he said, "there is a strong resolve to defeat this together. And today a general consensus on what we could do".

With that, Johnson seems to be obsessed with his Rs, what he calls the "reproduction rate of the disease". It makes a change from being concerned with his own reproduction rate, I suppose.

But so taken with his Rs is he that he is establishing a new Covid Alert System run by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, specifically to watch it. We will then have a "Covid Alert Level", which will be determined primarily by his Rs and "the number of coronavirus cases". And if we can get the alert level down enough, all sorts of goodies will come our way.

Apparently contradicting himself, we find that Johnson doesn't have "the shape of a plan to provide the first sketch of a road map". He does, in fact, have a plan. But it is a conditional plan. Since our priority is to protect the public and save lives, he tells us, "we cannot move forward unless we satisfy the five tests". And that's where his Rs came in. That sets the Covid Alert Level which will tell us how tough we have to be in our social distancing measures. The lower the level the fewer the measures.

Everyone, says Johnson, will have a role to play in keeping his Rs down. And we achieve this magical feat by – you guessed it – "by staying alert and following the rules".

But at least he does recognise that reality might have a part to play in all this. "To keep pushing the number of infections down", he adds, "there are two more things we must do". The first is to "reverse rapidly the awful epidemics in care homes and in the NHS", and the second is "a world-beating system for testing potential victims, and for tracing their contacts".

The fact that we are nowhere near reversing these "awful epidemics" is something of a worry, to say nothing of the fact that the "system for testing potential victims, and for tracing their contacts" – such that it is – might only just beat the Ecuadorian effort.

One shouldn't be too down on the man though. "With every day we are getting more and more data", he tells us. "We are shining the light of science on this invisible killer, and we will pick it up where it strikes". This apparently includes the new system which will be able "in time" to detect local flare-ups, as well as giving us a national picture.

Here, you really do wonder about the man. Over three months into an epidemic which poses "the most vicious threat this country has faced" in Johnson's lifetime, and only now does he tell us that we will "in time" have a system to detect local flare-ups. And this he can do without so much as a blush.

Thus, while other countries have made enough progress to start reversing their lockdowns, the UK prime minister has to admit that we have by "no means" fulfilled all of the conditions necessary to end the lockdown this week. Seven weeks into the lockdown, and all we have is a government prepared to take "the first careful steps to modify our measures".

At this point, if it wasn't so serious, one might have dreamed we had done a "Life on Mars" and woken up in the 1950s to hear an episode of the Goon Show. We should work from home if we can, but if we can't because, for instance, we work in construction or manufacturing, we should be actively encouraged to go to work.

But we should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited – so we're supposed to do a Tebbit (even if he hadn't been invented in the 50s) and get on our bikes.

Resorting to Wikipedia for an instant riposte, we learn that the average amount of time people spend commuting with public transport in London, for example to and from work on a weekday, is 84 minutes. Some 30 percent of passengers ride for more than two hours every day.

The average length of time people wait at a stop or station for public transit is 13 minutes, while 18 percent of passengers wait for over 20 minutes on average every day. The average length of a public transport journey is just over five miles, while 20 percent travel over eight miles in a single direction.

Typically (Nov-Dec 2019), there are 176.8 million bus journeys made per month, and 117.5 million journeys on the underground. That amounts to about ten million journeys per day, without taking into account all the other forms of transport – not least the commuter rail network.

That is just London, and there's the rest of the country to think of. Getting the workforce back to anything close to normality is going to take rather more than a few bikes on the road, and the fact that Johnson is even seriously suggesting this shows how detached from the real world he actually is.

The reality is that social distancing is entirely incompatible with the normal commercial functioning of the nation. If Johnson can't do better than the first sketch of a roadmap, then he needs to acknowledge that the economy isn't going to restart any time soon.

Yet, with not even a plan for a plan, this prime minister can stare directly at the camera and tell us: "We will come back from this devilish illness. We will come back to health, and robust health".

Although the UK will be changed by this experience, he says, he believes "we can be stronger and better than ever before. More resilient, more innovative, more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing". But for now, "we must stay alert, control the virus and save lives".

His timescale, though, is "weeks and months" before "we may be able to go further" than the limited measures he is about to propose. It thus turns out that, far from an address to the nation yesterday, the prime minister announced a programme for assisted [economic] suicide.

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