Britain Takes a Beating…From Itself

Photograph Source: Bradley Howard – CC BY 2.0

The week’s political headlines around the world were dominated by a member of the species Muscina stabulans descending on the immaculately tended white top– smooth enough to merit comparison to an Astroturf pitch– of the Trump henchman debating Kamala Harris. Nothing as visually spectacular as this occurred in the UK, where the news has been unvaryingly depressing.

+ UK Covid-19 positive tests surged 56% in a week.

+ At the same time, contact-tracing descended to a new low– 5,722 fewer people were tested. Only two-thirds of those who tested positive had their details entered into the tracing system, and a mere 68.6% of the immediate contacts of positive cases were reached. In addition, waiting times have risen again for those awaiting test results.

+ Hospital admissions for Covid-19 have doubled in the past two weeks. Latest figures show there are now 3,090 Covid-19 patients being treated in English hospitals– just 7 fewer than on March 23, when the national lockdown was imposed. On Saturday October 10th Britain recorded 13,864 cases and 87 deaths, compared with just 74 deaths on March 19th. At that time, the coronavirus pandemic was doubling every three or four days.

+ The impact on many hospital services in England by the pandemic is revealed in new NHS figures. More than 4 million patients are now waiting for routine surgery and treatments, nearly 50% of whom have been waiting for longer than 18 weeks, the supposed official maximum deadline. There are more than 110,000 people in England who have been waiting for treatment for more than a year. Doctors and patients’ advocates have warned that a second wave of the pandemic is likely to worsen this situation.

+ The “world beating” test and trace system, promised to be operational by May, should have been fixed when infections were lower over the summer. As winter approaches, the government is unprepared for the second wave of the virus that is already starting. All bets are off on whether the broken system will even be fixed by the New Year.

+ Even though £12bn/$15.6bn was spent on an Excel spreadsheet track and trace system using a Microsoft pc, the system cratered because an outdated version of Excel was used! Computer literate school kids could have performed this task for the equivalent of pocket money.

+ The government has failed to account for £3bn/$3.9bn spent on private contracts since the start of lockdown, according to the latest figures available. It comes as 3 MPs (a Green, Lib Dem, and Labour) and the Good Law Project, a non-profit, have launched legal action against the government over its failure to provide details of its contract-spending on the Covid-19 pandemic.

When dealing with the pandemic, BoJo, like his mentor Trump, has bobbed around like a capricious rubber ball. Here are a couple of examples:

+ In March BoJo said the corner on the virus would be “turned in 12 weeks”.

+ In April BoJo said “It’s as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel… and we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us…”.

+ In July, he announced Brits could be moving away from social-distancing measures by November, with “a more significant return to normality” possible in time for Christmas.

Another BoJo rubber-ball example:

+ (Tuesday 6 October 2020) BoJo, at the Conservative party annual conference, held virtually because of the pandemic: “our agenda is basic social justice”.

+ (Wednesday 7 October 2020) Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister Rishi Sunak announces that firms whose locations are legally required to shut over winter as part of local or national lockdowns will receive grants covering 67% of employees’ salaries up to £2,100/$2,725 a month. This is a reduction from the original furlough’s provision, which paid 80% of employees’ wages up to £2,500/$3,245 a month.

For those on the Basic Minimum Wage (which is set below what independent think tanks and poverty-action groups call the Basic Living Wage, meaning the BMW is already is already set below the poverty line really determined by the BLW) Sunak’s announcement means they will receive 2/3rds of their mortgage, 2/3rds of their rent, 2/3rds of their utilities, and 2/3rds of all other bills. In a word: the unfortunate people who now earn the BMW will be probably be toast financially. “Basic social justice” indeed!

+ (Thursday 8 October 2020) It is announced that MPs will get a salary increase of £3,360/$4,362. A tad more than “basic social justice” for the parliamentary elite?

Covid-19 would have been a challenge for any competent government. But constant indecision, a total absence of strategic clarity, Downing Street’s mania for centralized control (regional leaders are not consulted and obtain information about BoJo’s decisions by reading the newspapers), hyperbolic over-promising and repeated failures to deliver, comprehensive mismanagement, and simply hoping the job will get done by handing-out vast sums of money to cronies in the private sector–all these lie at the root of the government’s problems.

+ One prominent Tory MP speaking to a journalist anonymously said of BoJo: “He genuinely doesn’t give a flying fuck what the policy is”. The MP went on to say: “he’s never done the homework, so he doesn’t know anything. There really is no point in talking to the Prime Minister about policy at all”.

+ With BoJo barely able to hold a press conference or briefing without putting his foot in his mouth, the government decided to emulate the US and appointed a White House-style press secretary, so he wouldn’t have to face journalists with their bothersome questions.  Allegra Stratton, a former TV and newspaper journalist, was given the job. Ms Stratton is married to James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator magazine (BoJo is a former editor). She’s currently working as Director of Communications for the Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Sunak was best man at their wedding in 2011. The commissioning editor of The Spectator is Mary Wakefield (who worked at The Spectator with BoJo), the wife of Dominic Cummings, BoJo’s Rasputin-like chief adviser. With this latest episode of revolving doors some speculate that the work-shy BoJo can cut down his office hours to a couple of hours a week.

+ The government is urging Brits to look for “new careers” instead of waiting around in the hope that their old jobs will return at some stage during or after the pandemic. To this end its National Careers Service has a Skills Assessment website, where visitors can take a skills assessment by answering multiple-choice questions. Out of curiosity I took the Assessment, and was informed at the end that I should pursue careers “options” as a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, intelligence analyst, or archaeologist– all jobs for which I am completely unsuited. People are having fun on Ukanian social media by taking the Assessment and posting the results. One former high school student I taught in the 70s, of a strong pacifist disposition who answered the questions seriously, was advised to seek a military career.

At the end takers of the Assessment are informed that “If your results are in a sector that has been affected by COVID-19, call 0800 100 900 to discuss your results with a careers adviser who will have knowledge of local opportunities”.

No wonder people say satire or irony are becoming outdated.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.