UK lurches from crisis to crisis as corona-chaos continues
The UK has long enjoyed a reputation for competent, stable government, with the “Westminster model” of parliamentary democracy widely influential round the world.
Yet the response by Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration to the coronavirus crisis has been a masterclass in sloppy decision-making and chaotic public communications.
To be sure, the pandemic is one of the most complex challenges the world has faced in recent decades, and would tax the initiative of the most able government. Sadly, however, the response of the UK administration under Johnson’s leadership has been remarkably sluggish and sloppy compared with other nations, such as New Zealand in the Pacific, South Korea in Asia, and Germany in Europe.
Most recently, the incompetence of the Johnson government manifested in a fiasco over the end-of-year grading of high-school students. In any other year it is likely Education Secretary Gavin Williamson would have resigned, given the scale of the debacle.
It came about because the government embraced the use of a flawed computer algorithm to “predict” pupils’ test results, after final exams were canceled because of the pandemic, rather than relying on teachers’ assessments of probable grades. While these assessments are imperfect, too, they are more suited to the task at hand.
Part of the reason that Williamson has not resigned, or been sacked, is that the government is facing another potentially big education challenge next week, as Johnson urges pupils to go back to school after an absence from the classroom of almost six months, the longest since the Second World War.
The prime minister is very aware that many parents are reluctant to allow their children to return to school, for safety reasons, but has staked his credibility on it happening.
Given the potential for political embarrassment on this issue, too, some critics suggest that Williamson is being kept on as a potential “fall guy” to be sacrificed in coming weeks. There is probably some truth to these claims but there are other, wider reasons why he is being retained — for now — including the fact that he is a former government chief whip, who could become a powerful, disruptive force against Johnson if he leaves the cabinet and returns to the Conservative backbenches.
The exam-grading fiasco is only the latest controversy to hit the Johnson team since the start of the coronavirus crisis. No nation has been entirely spared the consequences of the pandemic, but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have, collectively, suffered more than most.
Not only is the UK on track to record one of the highest per capita mortality rates in the world, it is also forecast to suffer worse economic effects than any other G20 state. To be suffering so badly on both of these counts indicates the scale of the policy failures by Johnson’s government.
While the government’s “official” UK COVID-19 death figure now stands at more than 40,000 after it was revised downward by statisticians, the independent Office for National Statistics (ONS) regularly releases data that suggests the true number of deaths is significantly higher
According to ONS, for instance, in the three months to June 19 the UK had the largest absolute number of “excess deaths” in Europe — about 65,000 — many of which (but not all) were coronavirus-related.
Johnson, who almost succumbed to the virus himself, has been the biggest culprit responsible for the policy mess. While it would be too much to solely blame him for the fiasco, his approach to making decisions has too often been confused, and his skill set — big-picture optimism and “hands-off,” rather than detail-focused and “hands-on — and style — flamboyant and undisciplined — is not well suited to the demands of the pandemic era.
The state of flux and incoherence at the heart of UK policy making began to become evident as early as February. That was when the Johnson team flirted with a pandemic strategy described by some as a “herd immunity” approach. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world was imposing restrictive measures more quickly and testing many more people.
When Johnson promised the nation in March, therefore, that he would “send the virus packing” by June, and then last month said the nation would return to “normality” by November, both assessments were much too optimistic.
The latest data reveals the highest estimated rate of infection since mid-May. And for the first time since the peak of the lockdown, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is no longer confident that the R rate of transmission — the average number of people to whom an infected person will spread the virus — is below 1. The country is therefore preparing for what could be the most challenging fall and winter of modern times, with growing fears of a second spike when the colder weather returns.
Not only is the UK on track to record one of the highest per capita mortality rates in the world, it is also forecast to suffer worse economic effects than any other G20 state.
In addition to the policy confusion, there has been chaotic communications as well. One of the more recent examples of this came a few weeks ago when Health Secretary Matt Hancock made an announcement — via Twitter rather than a press conference — that gave about 4 million people in the north of England less than three hours of notice that they must endure tighter restrictions.
With the UK also facing the prospect of a second shock from any failure to agree an EU trade deal, there is simply no more room for muddled corona-crisis thinking.
It is high time Johnson’s team raised its game and embraced a different approach better suited to avoiding significant numbers of further deaths, and wider economic woe, at a time when the risk of both is intensifying.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view