Boris Johnson meeting consutruction worker. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street/ Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article Boris Johnson meeting consutruction worker. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street/ Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Boris Johnson’s Tory government should be held responsible for the scale of the coronavirus crisis, not ordinary people, argues Alex Snowdon

The latest polling suggests that large numbers of people will blame ordinary people, not the government, for any resurgence of coronavirus. 52% of those polled said people would be to blame for a ‘second wave’, compared to 31% holding the government responsible.

There are two things to consider here: whether this is correct, and why people hold such views.

Profit over people

Is it correct that people, not the government, will be to blame for a rise in coronavirus cases? No. It is the government that has made a series of contentious decisions about when to remove various lockdown restrictions. These changes largely explain why coronavirus has – despite transmission levels falling massively since the March/April peak – continued to circulate.

This has been driven by a desire to ‘restart the economy’ and return levels of economic activity to something resembling pre-pandemic levels. To a large extent this has proved to be a false economy. An elimination strategy would have perhaps required locking down for longer, but that could have been followed by a fuller ‘return to normal’, instead of the extremely patchy return to economic activity that we are seeing.

The medium-term and long-term impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods is going to be terrible. Unemployment is set to soar, with forecasts that it could reach four million next year. This isn’t inevitable. The scale of long-term economic crisis is shaped by the policy failures of the last few months.

The failure to implement lockdown properly has prevented us, as a society, from eliminating the virus. It has prolonged virus transmission and therefore prolonged the associated economic and social problems.

Failures over lockdown

The first big mistake was taking too long to lock down in the first place. If lockdown had started one week earlier, it would have made an impact when infection rates were still much lower.

This initial – and devastating – mistake has been exacerbated by repeated instances of pushing people back to work, or lifting restrictions, too soon. 1st June was too soon for a partial return to school, 15th June was too soon for reopening retail and 4th July was too soon for reopening whole sectors of the economy.

In each case the emphasis was on narrow short-term economic interests. Policies ought to be have been framed by the bigger picture of saving lives, public health and everyone’s economic well-being.

This has given the UK a rather different trajectory to other European countries. The infection and death rates have thankfully fallen considerably, but not to the same extent as elsewhere. There was a lot of media coverage of Spain and Italy in March. But these countries had much lower rates in June and July than the UK.

The same applies to almost everywhere else across Europe. Our government, by contrast, took a reckless and dangerous approach to lockdown lifting. This has prevented the proper elimination of the virus.

Wider failures

There have been other failures too, most notably on testing and tracing. Even now, the testing system is not adequate. The weaknesses in the government’s approach to testing and tracing could have awful consequences if there is a significant revival of virus transmission.

There is also the question of NHS preparedness for a major resurgence. The NHS coped during the peak period of coronavirus by postponing or cancelling operations and other aspects of health care. That can only be a one-off. A decade of under-investment in the NHS, together with massive failures in preparing for a pandemic, has serious effects.

Finally, it should be noted that most people have been cautious and sensible in their personal behaviour at every stage of the crisis. There were very high levels of compliance with the lockdown. Media panics about the exceptions to this general pattern should not obscure the reality that most people did an excellent job of adapting, very swiftly, to changed circumstances.

Where workers have had some choice about returning to the workplace, they have tended to be very cautious. Surveys have repeatedly indicated widespread public scepticism about lifting restrictions.

Why people blame each other

Why, then, is there a widespread perception that ordinary people will be to blame for any resurgence? More generally, why are the Tories not tanking in the polls as a result of this crisis?

Three factors explain this. Firstly, there is the obvious point that people are inclined to blame who (or what) they can see. If we go to the supermarket and see someone not wearing a face mask, it is easy to blame them. We see some people not socially distancing and we disapprove of them.

All scapegoating works in this way. It is easier to blame the ‘skiver’ or immigrant in your street for economic problems than to focus on the wealthy and powerful members of a capitalist class you never personally encounter. This tendency is amplified by media coverage that focuses disapproval on ordinary people.

Secondly, there has been a consistent government strategy of refusing to acknowledge its own failures, while emphasising the importance of public compliance.

Objectively, the government’s record has been one of repeated and very serious failures. It has therefore made a concerted push to frame people’s behaviour – not public policy – as being the decisive factor in how many people are infected and how many people die.

Weak opposition

Thirdly, there is the ongoing and dismal lack of opposition. Labour’s approach since Keir Starmer became leader in early April has been to uncritically accept the big government decisions, while reserving criticism for details.

This has reinforced the government narrative at every stage. It has made any criticism very muted and ineffective because it has been in the context of acceptance of the government’s main policies and messaging. There has been no alternative vision that could encourage millions of people to recognise where the blame really lies.

Despite this, there are still substantial numbers who clearly do blame the government – and those numbers can grow in response to circumstances. The Tories continue to lead Labour in polls of voting intention because of the poor opposition, not because of high levels of approval for Boris Johnson or the government. Those approval ratings have in fact fallen considerably since March.

This is a weaker government than it often appears to be. But we need more serious and consistent opposition to make sure that saving lives is put first – and to turn the tide of political debate about resolving the crisis.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).