Notes From the Margins…

Turning the Corner

  • May 01, 2020
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Spring is here, and even in a nation in lockdown, it’s possible to detect  a new confidence and optimism at the helm of the United Kingdom of Populist Brexit Republics (UKPBR), a sense that the darkest days are over and that we have turned the corner in the war against Covid-19.  Asked by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News last week what the government might have done better, Matt Hancock replied bullishly that the government had only ever had two objectives; to flatten the curve and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, and that both these objectives had been met.

Pressed about any mistakes that the government might have been made, Hancock humbly responded that he and his fellow-ministers were ‘only human’, but insisted that they were working night and day to respond to an ‘unprecedented crisis that nobody’s ever seen before’ and  ‘learning from countries around the world that are doing well’ as to how to deal with it.

Next up was Michael ‘cocaine’ Gove,  who did concede that ‘We haven’t got everything right’ while simultaneously claiming that the government had in fact done exactly that.  And this week the Supreme Leader emerged from his convalescence and hailed the ‘apparent success’ in the struggle against coronavirus.  Johnson praised the ‘effort and sacrifice of the British people’ against the ‘invisible mugger’ that had brought us closer ‘to the end of this first stage of this conflict.’  Yesterday, the Great Helmsman threw in another of the overwrought ‘colourful’ metaphors that he and his followers are so fond of, and went further, declaring

We have come through the peak.  Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel.  And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.

This is the kind of speech you might expect Churchill to give in a film in which Churchill was played by Benny Hill, or a Gettysburg address delivered by Alan Partridge.  Johnson was at pains to  take credit for this happy outcome, and claimed that ‘ that broadly speaking, and we’re learning lessons every day, … I do think that broadly speaking, we did the right thing at the right time.’

Such pronouncements have become part of the new stirring Tory soundtrack in the patriotic war movie which might be called Coronavirus Daybreak.  It’s a movie in which a compassionate, caring government leads the nation to victory against an evil ‘unprecedented’ enemy that no one could have anticipated or prepared for, by ‘following the science’ and doing what it needed to do at every stage in the campaign.

It’s above all a British movie with British heroes: ‘our’ NHS, Captain Tom Moore, Boris Johnson himself, the ‘boss’ who descended into the netherworld and wrestled with the Covid-19 monster with the help of two foreign nurses.  “We’re past the peak, it’s Captain Tom’s Birthday and we have the best carers of anywhere in the world,” tweeted Rishi Sunak yesterday. “Clapping again for our tremendous carers tonight and wishing hero @captaintommoore a very happy birthday,” tweeted Carrie Symonds, adding coyly “I also have another wonderful reason to thank the NHS this week too.”

And so do we, because the Johnson-Symonds baby has even given the war movie a Love Actually kind of ending, according to the Telegraph’s Judith Woods, who described the arrival of Johnson’s ‘bouncing Brexit boy’ as ‘balm for the soul in these anxious times…  Love him or loathe him…we can all agree that news of a baby’s arrival incontrovertibly adds to the gaiety of the nation.’

This is the kind of writing that would make Kim-Jong-Un blush, and here in the United Kingdom of Brexit Populist Republics, no coercion is required to produce such unctuous sycophantic drivel: we are simply blessed with an abundance of writers who will happily debase themselves of their own free will.

As is often the case with the Tory Party’s media machine, these comms messages are being repeated with the same consistency that characterised the election campaign: that we have come through the worst and the government is to be congratulated for getting us here.   Meanwhile the virus continues to cut a swath of trauma, suffering and grief through hospitals and care homes across the nation.  This week the Manchester Evening News  reported on the horrific care home crisis in the city:

Residents in care homes across Greater Manchester are dying painful, lonely deaths – ‘drowning’ in the fluid building up in their lungs, crying out for loved ones who never arrive and suffering nightmarish hallucinations…Staff tell of feeling powerless as they lose resident after resident to this cruel disease. They say they have seen patients test positive for Covid-19 in hospital before being moved to a care home without disclosure of their condition – risking the lives of staff and the elderly….And they live daily with the problem that’s plagued key workers from the start – the shortage of testing and PPE

In the same week a Panorama investigation found that  NHS workers across the country are still treating Covid-19 patients without protective equipment each week. The  program also found that the government had failed to stockpile equipment and had downgraded its coronavirus guidelines in order to force NHS staff to use equipment that had previously been considered unsafe.

These revelations follow a string of reports and investigations in Byline Times, the Sunday Times, and the Guardian,  that have found the government wanting at key stages of the pandemic.  At present the UK has the third highest death toll in the world, with 26,771 official deaths, though the real total is much higher.   Compare this with Vietnam, which has a population of 97 million, and no Covid-19 deaths at all.  Or South Korea, which has less than three hundred Covid-19 deaths out of a population of 50 million.

One would expect a government that has presided over these outcomes to be a little more humble before boasting of its successes, and perhaps even a little contrite.  It’s not that its claims are entirely false.  The rate of infections is falling as a result of the (belated) quarantine.  The NHS has not collapsed.  Food supply chains have been maintained.  But that does not mean that the government should be congratulating itself, or that it should be allowed to evade responsibility for the dithering and lack of preparation that has produced such a calamitous death toll, and which has exposed workers in hospitals and care homes to death, illness, and psychological trauma.

When Johnson claimed yesterday that government action had prevented the loss of ‘500,000 lives’, he failed to add that those figures referred to the government’s earlier ‘herd immunity’ strategy that was criticised by experts in the UK and abroad, and which the government continues to deny ever having implemented.

Unwilling to admit to this, Johnson merely moved the goalposts in order to deflect criticism and avoid blame.  To point out these tics is not to ‘politicise the crisis’ . Faced with a public health emergency on this scale, it ought to be a basic requirement of any democracy to ask questions about what happened and why.  But this is not what Johnson and his cohorts do, or have ever done.

In this, as with Brexit, they have refused to take any responsibility for anything that has gone wrong, or which turned out to be different from what they predicted.  Instead they have denied that anything did go wrong, or tried to blame someone else.   They do this, because their primary concern is and always has been to maintain themselves in power, and deflect or avoid any criticism that might undermine that possibility.

This is why we are now getting the historical revisionism that cuts corners wherever it can,  and the celebratory mood music that attributes cynicism and ‘politicising’ to anyone who doesn’t join in.  This is why government ministers praise a war veteran who raised the millions for ‘our’ NHS that the state should have provided. It’s why government ministers have themselves clapping the ‘heroes’ who they sent into hospital wards without even basic protective equipment – the same heroes who are being warned not to speak to the media about PPE shortages.

And as always with the Tory media machine, the national kumbaya chorus is accompanied by a relentless smearing, dismissal and marginalisation of any media outlets or individuals who have the temerity to try and hold them to account, whether it’s Panorama, the Sunday Times, or Piers Morgan.

This is what they do, and it’s what they’ve always done, and we should never allow them to make us forget  it.






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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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