EU Referendum

Coronavirus: moving on


We should, says prime minister Johnson, lay aside party political point-scoring and move on, and move on and move on and move on. And just in case there is any doubt, we should move on. That's what the country wants – to move on.

Johnson, of course – in between weaselling and wriggling out of answering questions for the Commons Liaison Committee - doesn't want us mere plebs to be distracted by all this autobiography. Whatever has been said about his advisor is false anyway and we have the coronavirus to beat. This would be best achieved if we all just moved on. That's what we need to do. Move on.

Tomorrow is a brand new day, and that is now today, which is what happens when you leave tomorrows lying around too long. They become todays, and if you leave them even longer they become yesterdays. But before today becomes yesterday, we have a brand new test and trace system to play with, which starts today.

This is being run by Baroness Harding, otherwise known as Dido Harding, formerly chief executive of the internet provider TalkTalk at a time when it was rated as the worst provider in living history for broadband and landline connections.

She was also at the eye of the storm in the TalkTalk hacking scandal in which the details of 156,959 customers – including names, emails and phone numbers – and 15,000 bank account numbers were accessed by hackers with the company receiving a record £400,000 fine from the information commissioner.

In the best tradition of English public service provision, therefore, we have an entirely new enterprise being run by someone who has absolutely no knowledge of the subject and has a track record of presiding over train wrecks.

Nevertheless, sources close to her say she has made a great start on the detail and is "super-driven" to succeed. Apparently, she sees things from the "customer experience" and is passionate about getting it right. Who knows what a mess she might make if she wasn't so "passionate".

In her favour, she is a contemporary of David Cameron, studying alongside him for that vital PPE qualification in Oxford, and she is now a Tory life peer. She is, therefore, "one of us", and can be trusted to move on, unlike these tiresome plebs who keep asking why a chief advisor had to drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

Now that Dido is in charge, we can expect calls from gig-economy contact tracers to tell us we've been in contact with infected persons – if that is ever the case. Apparently, the famous app isn't ready yet, and experience in the Isle of Wight indicates that people prefer human beings to tell them they are suffering from a potentially fatal disease.

Presumably though, once told, one can take one's cue from Robert Jenrick. He seems to suggest that one can drive immediately to a convenient location and hole up in a spare house kept for the purpose – especially if one might at some time need child care from relatives.

Once safely ensconced, you must isolate for 14 days, even if you don't have symptoms. This, at the moment, is voluntary but you must do it anyway because Matt Hancock says it's your "civic duty". And just to make sure the message is clear, prime minister Johnson tweets us with the message: "play your part – don't put all the good work at risk".

However, if you don't happen to have a spare house knocking about, you can isolate with your family – if you have one – in your current home. Family (or other household) members do not have to isolate unless they have symptoms. They are, therefore, free to spread the disease to their communities. Thus is Dido in the familiar position of having another train wreck on her hands.

Furthermore, as many people will only get statutory sick pay when isolating (if that), they will not be able to afford the luxury of Mr Hancock's "civic duty". The best thing for them, if a contact tracer comes calling, is to pretend they are someone else, and offer to take a message.

Prime minister Johnson says that if people don't lock themselves up for the duration, he may consider fining them. But, no doubt, they could claim "exceptional circumstances" if they need to drive out to take an eye test, or have an urgent need for childcare.

Moving on, as one does, we are told by Matt Hancock – who is also good at moving on - that the test and trace system is going to be run alongside a new system of "local lockdowns", where individual "flare-ups" are to be investigated, with localised measures taken.

This is only what should have been done from the very start – more than ten weeks ago. The problem is, of course, that the traditional public health system had been dismantled and the capacity was no longer available. Now, under the gifted management of Dido, a whole new system can fail afresh, if for no other reason than our masters seem determined to reinvent the wheel under the NHS brand.

Launched into a post-Cummings world, however, the new system will not enjoy the best of starts. Most people, we are told, now believe there is "one rule for them, and one rule for us", as long as Cummings remains in post.

This is according to Stephen Reicher, an advisor to government on human behaviour during disease outbreaks. He has told Channel 4 News that research on compliance with authority shows that it depends critically on thinking that "authority is part of us, is with us, is for us". Once you create that sense of "us and them", you undermine trust and you undermine compliance.

Furthermore, as another commenter observes, the cost of defending Cummings's actions is "shredding the government's public health messaging". Ministers can no longer give a clear answer on anything for fear of accidentally incriminating him. And without clear rules, the whole lockdown edifice collapses.

As so often with contentious political issues, though, this still has a major element of the ever-present and increasingly tedious binary tribal culture war. But, as Pete complains, "why do we have to pick a side and cheer for any of them?"

Worse still, this is being conflated with Brexit, to the extent that some claim that the outcry over Cummings's hypocrisy is exclusively to do with Brexit. That, it would seem, is the narrative we're being schooled to accept. Says Pete: "If they can turn it into a tribal issue then they can count on the unequivocal support of the bovine populist grunters who worship Boris".

One certainly doesn't have to pick sides to agree with the Guardian editorial, which asserts that Johnson's "refusal not only to sack Mr Cummings, but even to express regret for his behaviour, amounts to a crisis of leadership and authority at the top of British politics".

And that's where the real conflation lies. The management of the Covid-19 epidemic has become caught up in the backlash of a failing prime minister who puts his own interests above that of the nation.

Johnson has created a remarkable situation where one cannot disagree with the Mirror which notes that the government is telling the public to do its "civic duty" while the prime minister still backs "aide who broke rules". It thus asks of Johnson: "why don't you do your duty?"

It's a small wonder that the prime minister wants us to "move on". But, as always, it's one rule for us, and another for him. We must, but he can't.