#BoristheButcher — Why Johnson’s speech and government inaction on COVID-19 will live in infamy
“I must level with the British public. Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
This story was edited 16 March 2020 to reflect the government U-turn announced in Johnson’s first daily address.
With these words, the British Prime Minister, as practically no world leader has ever done, began his address on his government’s decision to do practically nothing in the face of the global pandemic — proposing a fundamentally flawed principle of herd immunity based on the pseudo-science of ‘push’ behavioural psychology. The UK, whilst talking up international cooperation, stood alone in the face of WHO advice and united the worldwide scientific community in condemnation. It is likely that this, combined with public outcry, forced the government to completely reverse its course just four days later.
Even after the reversal to stop large gatherings and ‘encourage’ social distancing by advising against all ‘non-essential contact’, the government still failed to take any responsibility, not confirming any support for the businesses that will literally collapse as a result. This should come as no surprise as this approach serves many purposes for the Johnson regime, both personally and ideologically:
- It abrogates all responsibility away from the government to individuals and individual companies — Johnson has famously never taken responsibility for anything.
- It propagates the lie that the NHS and social services are anywhere near capable of dealing with the crisis — trying to make the point that the deaths are inevitable and unavoidable.
- It protects the blind progress towards a no-deal Brexit — suspending Parliament and closing government departments and concerned businesses whilst not suspending Brexit would be impossible to justify. Johnson said that the advice ‘applied to all’ but refused to suspend parliament or the House of Lords.
- It allows for the introduction of sweeping emergency powers to conveniently subvert ‘nuisances’ such as human rights, health and safety legislation and legal safe minimum nursing and social care provision.
As early as the weekend following his initial address, as #BoristheButcher trended on Twitter in the UK, the government u-turned on banning mass gatherings, covering this volte-face with the excuse that such gatherings would not be the cause of mass infection, and that stopping these events from going ahead would ‘reduce pressure on the police and ambulance services.’
Similarly on the following Monday, Johnson, once again flanked by his now notorious and discredited medical and scientific advisors tried to play down the sudden change as ‘what they were going to do at this stage anyway’ as if this had been planned all along, saying that the spread of the virus had already reached the ‘next stage’ — particularly in London.
Whilst this shambles go on, their comms strategy has not changed. Another product of Cameron’s push unit was the idea of leaking policy to compliant lobby journalists to see what the public reaction would be. Anything that caused uproar could be plausibly denied — anything that passed the test could be adopted. This has been wholeheartedly embraced by Dominic Cummings and Johnson — with even additional emergency Corona policy ideas been publicised in exactly the same way.Even on Sunday the 15 March, the government were still ‘leaking’ policy ideas and additional measures to the tory press, leading to further criticism and general disbelief. An announcement about additional measures to ‘protect’ the over 70’s in particular caused widespread anxiety. This dribble of measures, with no information at all on the practical considerations or knock-on effects, is just further engendering a general sense of unease and anxiety, when what the country needs is decisive action based on a clear intelligent policy that is communicated effectively and in detail.
It’s no wonder that panic buying has started and is continuing as people simply don’t know what to do. The choice of toilet paper in particular seems odd — as the product has absolutely nothing to do with the disease, and even in the strictest quarantined areas of the world, pharmacies and food shops remain open. The buying restores some control to people in this anxiety, it is a way for them to feel that they are doing something even if it is completely pointless and, in the end, counterproductive. It seems that this need has been forgotten by the ‘scientists’ advising at Number 10.
What we may well be witnessing is the beginning of the end of our civilisation, of the capitalist system. Freedoms that people are winning as accommodations are made to control the virus — are showing that some imposed limitations were simply never necessary in the first place. More flexibility in working, working from home, sick pay from day one, enhanced sick pay, credit and rent protections, the absolute necessity of more than adequate public and social healthcare completely removed from private enterprise, the list goes on. And for the planet, the end of unnecessary air travel, of the rush hour, the role of environmental and ecological protection in public health and more. All these things once out of the bottle will be much harder, if not impossible, to put back, especially if as one prediction holds, the current situation could continue for up to a year.
Simple solutions will not save the system. The virus has stopped travel, and so stopped the tourism industry. Airlines whose business model is reliant on the constant flow of flights and passengers teeter on the edge of collapse. The dependence on an exploited workforce to keep the system turning when they are incapable of work and must fall back on the state — on society — breaks the back of neoliberal right-wing capitalist dogma.
And it’s these things, the sudden and unprecedented change — a revolution of sorts — terrifies Johnson’s government more than the thousands of deaths they consider as an inevitable and unavoidable price to pay to protect business as usual, their money and power.
In the past at such junctures, authoritarian states have replied with aggressive suppression in an attempt to resist change. It remains to be seen, as the situation changes daily if not hourly, what further action — or inaction — the Johnson regime chooses to take.