The ‘Five O’Clock Follies’ was the name given during the Vietnam War to US military press briefings that were infamous for announcing non-existent victories and wildly exaggerated numbers for enemy casualties.
British government briefings about the Covid-19 epidemic have taken a shorter period to gain the same dubious reputation for making over-optimistic claims. Supposedly crucial advances in the battle with coronavirus are greeted with fanfare only for these successes to evaporate mysteriously or be downplayed as marginal a few weeks later.
The latest silver bullet, of which great things were expected, was the app that was to supply the information to allow for the speedy tracing of anybody in contact with an infected person. Proudly introduced by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, at one of the five o’clock press briefings, it was meant to be an essential part of Britain’s fight back against the disease.
The app was tested in the Isle of Wight, and research revealed that it did not work. As one senior government official with a ludicrously firm grip on the obvious was quoted as saying: “No app is better than a bad app.”
There is a curious lack of outrage in the country over the app debacle and other failures that were once billed by the government as lifesavers, but turned out to be duds. Perhaps cynicism is now so rife that upbeat predictions and promises by ministers are discounted from the word go.
Yet the non-functioning app would have helped establish the find, test and trace network that is essential if Britain is ever to escape semi-lockdown. This has been done before with illnesses like TB, polio, syphilis and HIV, and should not be too difficult to do again. I caught polio in an epidemic in county Cork in Ireland in 1956, and the following morning an official from the ill-resourced Irish Health Ministry was visiting neighbouring farms, none of which had phones, to tell them what had happened and that they should go into what would now be called self-isolation. Yet what was done in impoverished rural Ireland in the 1950s is somehow beyond the capabilities of the vastly wealthier and more sophisticated British state today.
Seeing Boris Johnson seeking to cope with the pandemic has become more and more like watching Peter Sellers play Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. The audience knows that Clouseau is always a little off beam and the next fiasco is just around the corner.
The analogy works well but it is difficult to laugh at it because the grotesquely long list of unforced errors by the government has contributed to the deaths of as many as 40,000 additional people. The only truly apposite comparison is with the British generals of the First World War, whose collective idiocy inflicted such hideous losses on their men.
If the death toll was not so grim, the antics of the government would produce some sour amusement. The 14-day quarantine for people entering Britain does not at first sound as if it could be a source of merriment. The regulations are strict and the punishments severe for those who break the rules that amount to a sort of house arrest, confinement being more rigorous than the original UK lockdown.
The self-defeating absurdity of what is proposed only becomes clear when one reads the enormous list of exceptions to the quarantine who can go where they want. These include specific occupations like aerospace engineers and farm workers as well as broad all-encompassing categories such as those who have “specialist technical skills” or are in the habit of commuting once a week between the UK and any other country.
In reality there is no real quarantine, but why go to such trouble and take so much criticism in order to pretend that there is? Is this simply the Brexit mentality at its worst and British exceptionalism at its silliest? Perhaps the Brexit project as a whole itself will turn out to be a ringing declaration of independence followed by a long list of exceptions.
When faced with a real-life crisis like Covid-19, Johnson and his ministers seem to yearn for the days when they could wrap every issue in the union jack. Johnson slid easily into his old role by claiming that the Black Lives Matter protests somehow challenged Britain’s history and traditions, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square being in particular danger, though evidence for this was meagre. This sort of threat-enhancement to some national icon is the shop-soiled gambit of every nativist demagogue from Sao Paulo to Budapest and Washington to Manila.
For Johnson, it is a default position, using shallow patriotic rhetoric to justify the merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office. It is strange that such a move should be given priority in the middle of a crisis but Johnson claimed that it had become a “giant cashpoint in the sky” for various undeserving countries and that in future British aid will be geared to supporting British interests in such paragons of financial rectitude as Ukraine.
Such abrupt governmental reorganisations usually cause confusion and do little good to anybody. It is one more sign that the Johnson government thinks only in slogans and headlines and has no real strategy for dealing with coronavirus. Johnson may seek to imitate Churchill and make embarrassing sub-Churchillian speeches, but in reality he is a sort of “anti-Churchill” doing the exact opposite of his heroic idol.
Churchill was very conscious that Britain only won wars or exerted great influence in Europe when it created or joined a powerful alliance of European states. He knew that Britain could not stand alone for long and devoted immense efforts in the Second World War to building up an alliance with the US and Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.
Johnson has never shown much knowledge of British or European history beyond the bombast. This is typical of the Brexiters who have a sort of blithe self-confidence that everything will turn out all right on the night and global Britain can rise again, without knowing much about the rest of the world. A symptom of this sort of self-confident provincialism was Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, showing that he had somehow managed to remain ignorant about why people “take the knee” as a gesture of solidarity with the worldwide anti-racist campaign.
Johnson is very different from Churchill and it is difficult to think of any leader from British history whom he closely resembles. Most of those with whom he is compared are fictional characters such Rufus T Firefly, the leader of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup. Others believe that such a poor leader cannot last long in such a serious crisis and, like Macbeth when the going got rough he feels “his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief”.