UK’s Chaos Unbound

Photograph Source: Bradley Howard – CC BY 2.0

Each week, it looks as if a new rock bottom has been reached in the UK where the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and negotiations with the EU on a Brexit deal are concerned. The following week then reveals that further depths have now been plumbed, and the story is then repeated in each of the following weeks.

The negotiations with the EU point increasingly towards a No Deal Brexit, which will be catastrophic economically, piling yet more misery on top of the economic chaos caused by the Conservatives’ arbitrary and not-thought-through Covid-19 lockdowns and their accompanying band-aid job support schemes.

As he sinks in the opinion polls, it becomes clearer by the day that Boris “BoJo” Johnson has no idea of what constitutes an adequate response to the pandemic. His proposed solutions are always ad hoc, the latest “solution” usually countermanding the one proferred a couple of days before.

BoJo’s government got the UK into this mess by overlooking warnings early in the year as the pandemic moved steadily across Europe; not really bothering to develop an adequate testing system; closing the UK’s borders much too late; not having a functioning quarantine system; insisting on the shambolic centralization of responses to the pandemic when local conditions required otherwise; failing to provide adequate PPE for staff in hospitals and care homes; not having enough staff to run the emergency Nightingale hospitals; returning elderly Covid-19 patients from hospitals to care homes without adequate testing; and awarding billions to Tory pals and donors in no-bid contracts.

BoJo has finally apologized for failings in England’s £12bn/$15.5bn test-and-trace system as contact-tracing numbers fell to a new low and waiting times for test results climbed to almost double the targetted deadlines.

The ever facile and disingenuous BoJo, having done everything to help his cronies cripple this system, said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it”.

James Naismith, professor of structural biology at Oxford University, said of the figures:

“[They] show a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic … The current system indicates that around two-thirds of infected people do not have contacts traced at all. Of the contacts provided, around 60% of the contacts are reached.

Of those that are reached, over 70% of them are in the same house as the positive case, so were unlikely to have needed the tracing system. Only half of all contacts that are actually traced are reached within 24 hours”.

None of his ministers seem to operate from the same script, so BoJo, a congenital bluffer with a fondness for phrases of cod Latin rather than being an adroit thinker, is tormented during press briefings by requests from journalists to reconcile his seat of the pants decision-making with the equally spur of the moment stances of his ministerial colleagues—the latter being just as incompetent as he is, if not more so.

Even the Tories are at odds with each other over BoJo’s highly confusing 3-tier lockdown system, designed to establish how “at risk” an area happens to be. The measures have been introduced to prevent the UK from undergoing another across-the-nation lockdown which would cause a complete closure of businesses and schools.

Tier 3 (Very high alert level): Household mixing will be banned; all pubs and bars will be closed

Tier 2 (High alert level): Covers most areas under current restrictions; people will not be able to mix with other households indoors

Tier 1 (Medium alert level): Covers most of England; it will feature current rules such as the rule of 6 (individuals) for meetings and 10pm closing time for pubs

There are suspicions that the system is being gamed to suit Tory strongholds— these areas seem to predominate among tiers 1 and 2, while many Labour areas have seen BoJo impose a tier 3 status on them without bothering to consult local leaders.

BoJo has said the criterion for assigning a tier to a particular area is provided by its R or Basic Reproduction Number. This is the expected number of cases directly generated by 1 case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection. For example, if a disease has an R number of 18, a person who has the disease will transmit it to an average of 18 other people.

Epidemiologists have long pointed out that using the R number can’t work without an adequate testing system. Even if it works, using the R number on its own won’t do the job of assigning a tier accurately.

Other factors are just as important, such as the capacity of local hospitals to deal with Covid cases regardless of the R number.

As is the case in the US, cities and large towns in the UK with their university, and other, hospitals, tend to be better resourced when it comes to medical care. Small towns in rural areas, with a single general hospital (say), are likely to struggle with even a small rise in the number of Covid cases requiring hospitalization.

BoJo also has no criteria for determining when an area is in a position to be moved down a tier, which is hardly surprising, given that his own medical and scientific advisers expressed no enthusiasm for BoJo’s “tracks of my tiers” system (tributes to Smokey Robinson and the brilliant cartoonist Martin Rowson for this).

The government’s chaotic lockdown regulations, riddled with loopholes, has led to a sharp drop in the number of those adhering to the rules.

The latest Opinium poll showed the proportion of 18-34-year-olds who admitted breaking the rules has increased from 10% to 17% in the last two weeks. The proportion of 35-44-year-olds increased even more sharply – from 10% to 18% over the same period.

BoJo got into an almighty tussle with Andy Burnham, the elected Labour mayor of Manchester.

Burnham is an ambitious and pugilistic Blairite who was an MP before becoming Manchester’s mayor in 2017. Prior to that he had been a member of the cabinet of Gordon Brown (Blair’s successor) until 2010. He ran unsuccessfully against Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership in 2015. His tin-eared motto in his campaign against Corbyn: ““the entrepreneur will be as much our hero as the nurse”. Adopting a motto like this in a supposedly socialist party would sink any person’s chances of becoming its leader.

Burnham, now probably sensing an opportunity created by the milque-toast disposition of the (equally) Blairite Labour leader Keir Starmer in his dealings with the Tories, did the right thing by insisting on financial relief for the job losses ensuing from the pandemic’s second wave.

After well-publicized toing’s-and-froing’s with BoJo, Burnham ended-up receiving a paltry £65mn/$84mn so that less well-off Mancunians could continue to buy food and pay rent.

By comparison, last month BoJo was telling Brits he was going to spend £100bn/$130bn on the “Operation Moonshot” mass testing project, a sum conjured-up in a go-for-broke con to find a supposedly adequate test-and-trace system after failed attempts galore. Sentient Brits know that most of this money will find its way into the pockets of Tory cronies.

In comparison, the £65mn sought by Burnham for the inhabitants of Manchester amounts to a measly £0.065bn. But then simple arithmetic has never been BoJo’s strong point, and moreover, neoliberal governments such as the Tories operate these days in the realm of Enron-style postmodern accounting.

Cynics in the media suggest that Burnham should turn Manchester into a three-week old corporate outfit, with £300/$391 max in capital, and, pretending to be a Tory, make a pitch for a £100mn/$130.6mn no-bid contract to manufacture PPE (despite having no experience whatsoever in this business).

If others, i.e. totally unqualified Tory supporters, have succeeded fabulously with similar pitches, then why not the hypothetical “entrepreneur” Andy Burnham?

In a more serious vein, Burnham has at last found a cause that puts him on the side of the proverbial angels, and he’s become a key spokesperson not just for his metropolis, but the entire North of England.

This supposedly regional politician, at least for now, has achieved some kind of national prominence. Watch out Keir Starmer, and perhaps Boris Johnson. Someone could be finding a way to be the new sheriff in Westminster.

322 Tory MPs voted against a measure to extend free meals for the UK’s poorest children over the half-term and winter school holidays. Their votes killed the bill.

Millions face incapacitating financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, but the Tories decided to end a lifeline for the most vulnerable families.

It is estimated that 1.4 million children will go hungry this Christmas.

The Manchester United and England soccer star Marcus Rashford, a food poverty activist, has raised £20mn/$26.2mn to fund free school meals, and, backed by more than 2,000 pediatricians, pleaded with Tory MPs to extend the free meals programme to cover the winter period.

The Scrooge-like Tory parliamentary vote (one Tory MP, Ben Bradley, tweeted that free meals in his constituency ended-up in crack houses and brothels), left a poor taste in the mouths of party members, and some Tory local councils, including the one in BoJo’s own constituency, saved face by saying they would take over the funding of school meals for the Christmas period.

Hundreds of cafes, shops, and pubs heeded Rashford’s call to feed poor children.

Labour has just announced it will force another vote on free school meals if the government does not change course before the Christmas break.

Meanwhile the Tories continue to squander vast sums elsewhere.

BoJo still plans to spend £120mn/$155mn on the so-called “Festival of Brexit” in the new year. Historically, this could be the first time a UK government spends millions celebrating a palpable economic disaster for the country.

Earlier this month Downing Street confirmed that plans for a Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge across the Irish Sea are underway, BoJo saying the bridge would “only cost about £15bn/$20bn”. The sea beneath the potential route was used as a huge munitions dump during WW2, and experts have warned against constructing a bridge there.

In July, the government bought a stake worth £400mn/$522mn in the failed satellite firm OneWeb as part of a post-Brexit space strategy. Questions have been raised in parliament about awarding this deal to a bankrupt US company.

In something like a closing finger-flip at Marcus Rashford and his supporters, it was revealed that booze in the parliamentary bars is subsidized to the tune of £4.4mn/$6mn a year.

So cheers everyone, and even if you are destitute, have a jolly good time during the festive (sic) season!

A correction regarding my last week’s CounterPunch article: In my CP article on Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party, I mistakenly attributed the commissioning of an internal party report on racism and antisemitism within Labour to Starmer. The report was of course commissioned by Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. My apologies to readers.


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