Downing Street is in the grip of a groupthink that delegitimises independent voices. The country is paying a heavy price
The United Kingdom is facing a Covid calamity, and it is a situation that was made in Downing Street. Infections and hospital admissions are rising rapidly. An exponentially growing epidemic is outpacing the rate at which the testing regime is expanding, meaning that it is not possible to properly track the spread of the disease. If nothing changes, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned on Monday, there could be 200 deaths a day by mid-November.
It is clear that transmission of the disease through the population needs to be stopped. This might not require a nationwide lockdown, where schools and workplaces are closed. However, stringent measures ought to come into force across the country, alongside a clear strategy to rebuild the test and trace system. Boris Johnson needs to move decisively to contain the risk. There will be a balance to strike. Dilemmas such as the tension between reducing social contact and continuing economic life are not easy to resolve. But the lesson from earlier this year was that in a pandemic it’s best to move fast.
The trouble is that Britain has the wrong government for the Covid era. Boris Johnson has not yet shown that he can weigh the seriousness of the situation and act appropriately. He let events spin out of control, because he believed he could spin his way out of the problem. All too often, the prime minister has overpromised and underdelivered – if he delivered at all. Mr Johnson is unwilling to take responsibility for his missteps during the pandemic. His psychological strategy is to avoid admitting fault. This has led him to snub the checks and balances designed to ensure that the British state learns from experience to improve services. The idea is to update views to take better decisions in future.
Mr Johnson prefers non-accountability in government policy. Parliament has been sidelined during the pandemic. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, is right to insist that further Covid restrictions be debated – and voted on – in the Commons. The prime minister will probably resist this move, and he will be wrong to do so. Parliament can give the public a window on why the government acts as it does. Mr Johnson sees little value in this. He wants the public to face punitive fines for breaking lockdown while his chief adviser smirks that he did so earlier this year to test his eyesight.
Downing Street is in the grip of a groupthink that delegitimises independent voices. The clearout at the top of the civil service is part of that. What Mr Johnson seems to run is a gang rather than a government. He does not appoint people for competence but loyalty. This promotes an us-versus-them worldview. Dido Harding, the businesswoman and Conservative party peer who failed to get the test and trace system running effectively, has been picked to run Mr Johnson’s new public health system. Her qualification is that she will defend incompetence by blaming the public. Labour’s Lord Falconer calls it a “corrupting” of the constitution. He’s not wrong.
The disinformation is designed to put Downing Street above morality and the truth. There are things the country can and cannot do, and things Mr Johnson can and cannot do. The prime minister does not care that there is a difference. He tells voters that he can do anything and that the country can deliver whatever they want. He is gambling that his government will not be judged at the next election on its inept coronavirus response. It may work. Mr Johnson has reached the top by peddling half-truths. Britain’s high Covid death toll points to a set of real issues: a political culture of exceptionalism, shrivelled public services, rampant inequality and poor health. The unanimity of views in No 10 may be hard to escape, but the accumulation of blunders has led the country into a crisis.