Richard North, 22/05/2020  

"The pandemic is not going away. Instead, it is exposing the government's failures and inadequacies more brutally with every day that passes". So says the Guardian. And, for once, it's not wrong.

In different ways, and at different times, Pete and I have been saying the same of Brexit, and with the UK corner of the pandemic – its very own epidemic - we have two layers of stress testing. Arguably, either one is capable of causing this government to self-destruct. And, by that measure, the combination will almost certainly be fatal.

As to the Covid-19 epidemic, the problem for the government is that – as I wrote not so long ago – you can't bullshit a virus. The Johnson administration can pull all the crowd-pleasing stunts it likes, but a contented fan base is not going to resolve this crisis. Only hard science and sound epidemiological practice will do that – and this government is devoid of either.

In a sense, the problem with Brexit is the same – despite Johnson's attempts, along with his representative, David Frost – you can't bullshit the EU. The "colleagues" are no more amenable to the charm of the shambles of a man that Johnson has become, than is SARS-Cov-2. And in resolving this crisis to come, the government is all at sea. It doesn't have the first idea of what to do.

On top of all this – waiting in the wings – is the government's answer to climate change: net zero. With the banning of internal combustion engines supposedly scheduled for 2035, we are only looking at three full parliamentary terms before the first phase. There is less time to go to this event than the period between Blair's administration and this incumbent's tenure.

Even with the Covid-19 epidemic, things cannot be the same – not for a long time. It would be extremely rash to assume that a vaccine will be available this year, and it is still uncertain whether a working vaccine is even possible. And, while the Telegraph is happily reporting that "there are encouraging signs of Covid-19 being suppressed", this lies in the realms of fantasy.

On that score, its editorial, calling for Johnson to tell the nation that "we are winning the battle against Covid-19", is delusional, It seriously believes Johnson's boast that a "world-beating" test, track and trace system will be up and running from 1 June, with the paper trilling that: "The battle is being won", asserting: "The Prime Minister can claim credit for it".

For sure, the warnings of a second wave may be overheated. But, despite the Telegraph blathering about pockets in the country "where the virus is being stamped out", it is still out there, in multiple reservoirs of infection with a host population which is still largely susceptible to the disease. We may experience a temporary hiatus over the summer, but we will be very lucky to avoid a resurgence during the autumn and winter.

A harbinger comes with the Swedish experience (paywall), where – despite the attempt at inducing herd immunity, only 7.3 percent of Stockholm residents had coronavirus antibodies – and the "soft lockdown" has been rewarded with the highest Covid-19 per capita death rate in Europe. Relaxations of the lockdown in the UK could deliver similar effects.

Johnson's administration could, of course, anticipate this event, and introduce effective control measures – specifically, a workable trace, test and isolate regime. Applied now and though the summer, these could dampen down the case rate and keep it within the realms of the tolerable. But this won't happen. This government's fatal flaw is an overweening arrogance that prevents it from even admitting the possibility of error, much less responding to it, and improving its performance.

But even if the government was to undergo an epiphany, recognising that most of the measures it is implementing will not exert effective control over this epidemic, it is probably too difficult and too late to secure the sort of changes necessary to tame a potential winter epidemic. Years of decay in the public health system and the dead hand of centralisation cannot be reversed overnight – or even in a matter of months.

A timely illustration of this comes from the Manchester Evening News which reports that public health officials and local leaders still have no idea how many people are testing positive for the Covid-19 virus in Greater Manchester, "due to continued chaos within the national system".

The new antibody test, available to identify whether people have been exposed to infection (but not necessarily whether they are immune) will not make any difference here, and neither will the availability of a rapid test to detect people carrying the infection.

The problem is the way the test results are collated, in separate databases, processed by completely different systems. As collected, they cannot be broken down to local level and therefore cannot be usefully shared with councils. Thus, local officials complain that there are an enormous number of people being tested "but we don't know who they are, where they work, we don't know what their results are".

With a government so firmly committed to its top-down approach, changing the system to make it more accessible would first require a commitment to localism which simply is not part of its DNA. And without the political will, fundamental changes are not going to be made. Yet, on the other hand, without that localism, the government's control measures are not going to work.

A similar paradox exists with Brexit. Without a commitment to an extension of the transition period, it will not be possible to secure a comprehensive trade deal with the EU in the time. Yet, this government seems to be determined on a confrontational path that is more likely then anything to end up with a "no-deal" scenario. Even a "bare bones" deal would be little better.

But, as with the Covid-19 epidemic – where the government is impervious to reason – there is no political will for a more emollient approach to the EU. Confrontation seems to be hard-wired into the Johnson administration.

To an extent, the epidemic and Brexit seem to be feeding off each other. We have heard suggestions that the government feels more inclined to take a hard line with the EU because so many of the predicted outcomes of a "no-deal" scenario have already materialised as a result of Covid-19. Thus, many of the downside effects of a complete break with the EU can be blamed on an inanimate virus.

If this is the intention of the government, it is making a grave mistake. Even if concealed in part by the Covid-19 epidemic, the effects of a "no-deal" will be real and they can only aggravate the already severe economic pain that this country is already suffering.

Should a new winter Covid-19 peak coincide with the end of the transition period, with no agreement reached, the combined effects could substantially intensify the recession and delay our recovery from it. And then there is the collateral damage, as the death toll from untreated cancers and other life-threatening ailments come to be reckoned.

All this points to Johnson's luck running out. Already, there are signs that the political honeymoon is over – the Guardian has no monopoly of perception. By the winter, we will have a morose population that has not enjoyed a proper summer break (for which many people live), and economic hardship will be biting like never before.

Add to that the very real spectre of commodity shortages as supply chains come under further stress, and an unwelcome dose of inflation, and discontent could acquire a sharp political edge and embolden the opposition.

Should the government then be forced to re-introduce some lockdown measures, the long nights of winter could bring with them a very sombre mood which could boil over into discontent – especially as Christmas is likely to lack much of its traditions. And yet, there will be no quick fixes and Johnson's boyish charms will have long ceased to protect him from the political fallout.

To add to his woes, the incessant drumbeat of fault-finding – against the ever-present prospect of a public enquiry- and with the media picking at the details of the government's actions, gradually exposing the errors, will further erode his political authority and credibility – what little he has left.

This time, though, there will be no general election to act as an escape route. Johnson and his second-rate team of ministers will have to stand their ground, and take the responsibility for their own actions. And, in the political context of a recessionary winter, there will be little tolerance for the bluster and bravado which is the stock-in-trade of this government.

So far, Johnson has had the good fortune to be a popular prime minister with a weak opposition. By January, in the grip of recession, with EU trade evaporating and disease and death rampant, he may experience a level of unpopularity, with which he cannot cope.

It is then that the mettle of the government will really be tested, and there are many who will be unsurprised if it fails the test.

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