Friday, 17 April 2020

Corona: the rot at the top

I would be surprised if many are still watching the daily press conferences. I'm not. I've tuned them out. It's the usual parade of evasiveness, sloganeering and inanity. The only thing worse than the government's performance is that of our media.

That we have them at all, though, is problematic. Central government has assumed too much responsibility over the management of the crisis, treating it as a single outbreak when what we are dealing with is multiple outbreaks across the country, where local authorities should be the focus. That the management of the epidemic has gravitated to Downing Street is symptomatic of a command and control mentality where the government enjoys playing West Wing in front of a media corps that turns everything into a soap opera.

I'm not exactly sure when the Union flag "batwings" appeared but these such press conferences are stage managed to the last detail to convey seriousness and authority, leaden with wood panels to give it gravitas. It puts Tony Blair, the master of spin, to shame. Meanwhile the government is now taking a Trumpian hostile line with the media, largely because the public are more fed up with the media than the government. Everything this government does is an exercise in power projection.

The problem, however, is that while it can create the illusion of power, and the illusion of competence (which certainly works on the Tory activist clan), all the indications on the ground suggest this government has no idea what it's doing. Matt Hancock's latest tracing app wheeze has echos of Brexit where having failed to understand the EU's legal position they insisted a vague array of technology would be sufficient.

The picture out on the front line is not looking encouraging with the hidden epidemic in care homes now penetrating the noise, and now there are indications that China concealed the true number of fatalities. We're talking about phasing out the lockdown when there is every reason to believe this could become a magnitude worse. On top of all the failures so far, the UK is not testing or quarantining travellers from overseas even as other world powers impose strict controls.

Meanwhile, if the aim was to protect the NHS then we have already failed. As pointed out yesterday, when confronted with an epidemic of a highly infectious disease, for which there was no known cure and no vaccine, the very last place patients should be taken is a busy district general hospital, full of ill people and staff, where they will be exposed to this infection. As long as the hospitals themselves are reservoirs of infection, they will keep the infection going, re-seeding the community (together with the care homes). 

With the disease spreading to care homes - not least because infected patients have been discharged from NHS hospitals – these institutions are becoming death camps for the elderly, while care staff are dying in their dozens. The lockdown is necessary to protect us from the NHS, and until they sort out the hospitals and care homes, it will be unsafe to lift it. Therein lies the folly in using Nightingale hospitals as overspill capacity instead of primary treatment centres. They've turned the NHS into a National Covid Service, preventing patients from getting treatment they need which could lead to 60,000 additional deaths. 

Eventually the consequences of a litany of failures will catch up with this government where even the slickest media management operation can't paper over the cracks. Soon there will come an array of policy reversals where even the dimmest of BBC hacks might see though their excuses. The problem them is that the system is so degraded that even if the government did have a coherent plan with the right methods, translating that into action is very probably beyond their abilities. 

At the beginning of the outbreak the government responded to queries about volunteering, launching an NHS Volunteer Responder scheme. A volunteer army of 750,000 registered which to date has only been given 20,000 tasks. These things cannot be managed from the centre and the job should have been given to local authorities - but without a coherent plan it's doubtful councils would know what to usefully do with them.

The new style of presentation in Number Ten largely speaks to vacuity of British politics, where politicians like the role play it affords them along with the prestige that goes with it. Not for nothing is the PM's increasingly presidential. The top job is little more than play acting. 

This, of course was well within tolerance when the big questions were settled by way of EU membership and everything else was run by a network of quangos ensuring ministers weren't allowed to touch anything, when policy was largely entrenched, but now we have a double whammy of uncertainty, Brexit and Corona, where we desperately need informed and responsive leadership and public institutions capable of mobilising in a civil emergency. The thing that government is notionally for.

What we find now is that central government is primarily geared for a different function, ie to ensure any government is re-elected. The various offices of state spend more time shoring up the reputation of the ruling party than they do fixing what is broken. Meanwhile the central functions of local government have been centralised, amalgamated, de-skilled and defunded til all that's left of local government is regional development and welfare agencies that have long since been robbed of any meaningful power.

Up to press the government had enjoyed a spell of untouchability. It's approach to Brexit is immune to evidence and too nebulous to be disproved. Only when we have formally left the transition does Brexit enters the realm of evidence. We can say the same of Corona. The government can plaster the internet with its half-baked propaganda to shore up its whimsical policy response, but sooner or later, as the full picture emerges and the bodies start to pile up, the government has to account for its failures. They'd better hope their spin machine has an ace up its sleeve or Johnson's approval ratings will plummet even faster than our GDP.

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