Richard North, 20/09/2020  

More and more, from entirely casual conversations, I hear people dismiss Johnson's "lockdown" measures, with people expressing responses ranging from indifference to defiance.

It wasn't like that earlier in the year, when there was a genuine community spirit and, largely, a high degree of compliance. But that feeling has gone. Again and again, I hear the name "Cummings" spoken out loud.

What's good enough for him is good enough for everybody else. Almost single-handedly, he has destroyed any semblance of public-spirited cooperation. We do what we have to do, but the respect for the rules has gone.

Of course, when willing cooperation goes, all you have left is coercion. Uniformed thugs with sticks, their tasers and the rest of their array of weapons – enforcing the will of a state which has lost the trust of its people.

No better measure of that loss of trust is the announcement of £1,000 fines, growing rapidly to £10,000 for those who fail to follow lockdown rules – a level of absurdity when imposed on people – most people – who simply cannot afford that sort of money.

The lack of proportionality speaks of panic, a government which has lost control – and knows it. Thus, it gives license to its uniformed thugs to impose ridiculous penalties, in the hope that fear will induce compliance, where respect for the law has been lost.

In ordering such penalties, Johnson might have asked himself why he believes such a draconian response should be necessary. But then, if he asked the question, he surely would not like the answer. But the logic is unarguable. If we have a prime minister who has no respect for the rule of law, why should anyone else be bothered?

Underlying this also is a sense of drift. You would have to go a long way to find anyone who believed that the government had a grip on this epidemic, or had any confidence that it knew what it was doing.

And again personalities come into this. The choice of Dido "data loss" Harding as testing supremo, reigning over a failing system, has hardly inspired public confidence. More than anything, her appointment symbolises a rottenness deep in the heart of government that no-one could believe possible in Britain.

Johnson's lack of self-awareness is, of course, a wonder to behold. But how can he possible keep a straight face, when he burbles that: "The best way we can fight this virus is by everyone following the rules and self-isolating if they’re at risk of passing on coronavirus".

This is a man who has never knowingly obeyed a rule in his life, and has stood idly by while the odious Cummings drove a cart and horse through the rules, and then offered a frankly risible explanation for his misconduct.

Now, the man who is masquerading as a prime minister – when he isn't indulging in his penchant for dressing up – tells us that we should not underestimate just how important self-isolation is, for everyone except Dominic Cummings.

The new regulations he has churned out, under emergency powers, will mean you we are legally obliged to self-isolate if we have the virus or have been asked by Harding's failed NHS Test and Trace empire.

I doubt the man has even begun to think this through but, where the task of tracing infected and potentially infected people is already difficult enough, Johnson has just ensured that a huge tranche of people will now stay outside the system, rather than expose themselves to the risk of a draconian fine.

"People who choose to ignore the rules will face significant fines", Johnson says, so who in their right mind is going to get a test unless absolutely necessary, if the consequence is a call from Dido Harding's mates, and a £10K fine for not doing what they tell us? 

Johnson also seems to be locked into a time warp, asserting that we – with the notable exception of Dom Cummings – "need to do all we can to control the spread of this virus". But his rationale is still "to prevent the most vulnerable people from becoming infected, and to protect the NHS and save lives".

Thus, we're getting more of the "protect the NHS" schtick, where its conversion into the National Covid Service has cost and is costing thousands of lives, and untold pain, misery and uncertainty.

And there, under the control of the charlatan Johnson, things can only get worse. More than six months onto this epidemic, he and his advisors seem to have learned very little.

Instead of expanding and consolidating the network of Nightingale Hospitals, so that infected patients can be kept out of the general hospitals, we have the NHS clearing the decks again, to make way for a surge that will prevent the proper functioning of the service.

Meanwhile the track and trace system is a cruel joke, where not only is failing to meet the demand for testing, but the contact tracing has still not been properly organised at a local level, and the staff who are engaged are deprived of timely information that will enable them to do their jobs.

This, however, is so typical of this government. In the "us and them" stakes, it can mess up without a hint of penalty, leaving "us" to bear the consequences, and now be heavily penalised as the government attempts to make good its own shortcomings.

And yet, the worst is yet to come. Where the government clearly does not have a grip on the epidemic, when the case rate continues to rise, it will have nothing left in the locker – unless Johnson wants to raise the fines to £100K. And what then? Does he send in squads of bailiffs to chase up the people who can't or won't pay – or does he commit them to prison?

As the implications of the latest moves sink in, though, this inadequate hulk of a man will find that, far from improving the system, he has substantially damaged it as people identify "test and trace" as a coercive arm of the state.

But then, at least he may have temporarily solved the testing crisis. If applying for a test exposes the applicant to the risk of a massive fine, demand should fall off sharply. Perhaps that's the real reason.

In the longer run, though, the government has made a rod for its own back. What little residual cooperation and community spirit there was has just evaporated. The bully boys and their big sticks have taken over, and the state has become the oppressor.

We didn't think Johnson could make an even bigger mess of this than he has done to date, but one might take some little comfort from that fact that he still has the capacity to surprise.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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