Richard North, 23/07/2020  

I've written so much about the need for the test, track and trace effort to be localised that there is hardly anything to add. And, of course, I write from the perspective of actually having done the job in the field, working for local authorities.

The way the public health system in this country has been degraded is a matter of record, although it is quite evident that central government is quite incapable of understanding or learning any lessons from it.

Hence, we get this, where the Guardian reports: "Test and trace failing to contact thousands in England's worst-hit areas". In fact, in one area, the close contact rate is down to 47 percent.

There is no excuse for this. We are five months into this national epidemic and, whatever the failings were to start with, they should have been fixed by now. But that is not the way this government operates. Typically, it takes a bad situation, throws a lot of money at it – invariably to the wrong people – and to make it worse, denies that it has done anything wrong.

Sometime, way back – or so it seems, it was only in March - I wrote: "you can't bullshit a virus". Nothing substantive seems to have changed, and we are not out of the woods.

It seems that every time we think we've got a handle on this pandemic, something climbs out of the woodwork to remind us of the fragility of our controls.

This thing will never be truly nailed until we have an effective vaccine and, although some of the recent news is optimistic, we are many months away from having a working product available in the quantities needed. Thus, the only thing left to us is "old school" methods, for which there are no short cuts.

The fact that the government is failing to get a grip tells us a great deal about how our systems have degraded over time. But it also tells us a great deal about the state of our democracy.

In days gone by – and I am old enough to remember them, rather than imagine them – our politicians (local and national) always seemed acutely sensitive to bad press, and reacted swiftly to adverse criticism.

There was a phrase we used to use: "Questions in the House", to illustrate a serious situation. It just had to be raised in the Commons and you would have Ministers scurrying around trying to fix things.

Out of the blue – in the past – I've had ministers ring me and ask me what needed to be done to fix a particular problem. This wasn't anything special. It's the way things used to be done. Booker and I both experienced it. And it certainly goes back to Churchill's time – if not before – when he would pluck someone from obscurity when he had a problem, and take a direct personal briefing.

Now, when a defect is exposed, all we seem to get is vacuous, self-serving spin, while those responsible brazen it out and bury reports in a torrent of fine-sounding words. But then, the same mistakes get repeated again and again, on top of the new ones which keep happening. And the spin goes on.

At this stage, we cannot be far short of terminal decline. There comes a point when it is no longer possible to fix things. And here, in respect of this present government, one has to ask how much of this represents incompetence and how much is corruption, with ministers on the take.

There is so much dirty money sloshing through the system that we can no longer rely on the good faith and probity of our leaders, especially in view of recent events, where Tory ministers are being bankrolled by donors linked to Russia.

Once that corrosive doubt starts affecting sentiment, the only way is down. If the nation takes the view that our leaders are only interested in self-enrichment, the whole social compact breaks down.

A sign of the times is the continuing output from John Crace, whose columns many of us enjoy. But when we have a commentator in a major national newspaper who can call our most senior politician an "infantile narcissist", without any fear of comeback, there is something very seriously wrong.

When Johnson is openly called a liar in public, again without any fear of comeback, this is actually quite serious, even if we have become used to it. One doesn't have to like someone to respect him, but there no respect at all for the prime minister. That really isn't healthy.

So far, though, Johnson and his creepy cohorts seem to be getting away with it – but appearances can be deceptive. With Covid-19, there is some recognition that we are dealing with a force of nature, over which no government has complete control. And then Johnson gained some sympathy when he caught the disease and quite evidently suffered badly from it.

But I suspect he's not going to get the same free pass, when it comes to Brexit. Although we can see the attempts at blame transference – whence we can expect the mantra that we are being "punished" by Brussels – a lot of people are going to look at this as a self-inflicted injury.

The thing is here that, while a virus can't talk back, Brussels has its own skilled spinmeisters, and they are not going to be sitting back passively while Whitehall dumps the blame on them for the failure of the talks.

After yesterday's piece, reviewing the Telegraph's attempts at blame avoidance, we now have the Financial Times effectively deliver a riposte from Brussels.

The EU, we are told, is expected to warn that only several weeks remain to hammer out a trade deal with the UK if it is to be legally operational by the end of the year.

After the latest round of talks has failed to make tangible progress, Barnier and Frost are expected "to vent their frustration" at the situation, even though officials from both sides "insist the process is not on the verge of breakdown".

But Brussels "is increasingly concerned about the logistics of getting a deal into legal force in time for the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period on 31 December". Any political agreement would have to go through an intensive process of being converted into legally watertight text and translated into multiple European languages before it could be ratified.

Apparently, Brussels has pencilled in a special European Council (even if the FT insists on calling it a "summit") for 15 October, but any agreement must be approved by the European Parliament and then the General Affairs Council. Delay could jeopardise the ratification process, although the system can be fairly flexible.

But, before we get there, the writing of any legal text has to start in September and, with so many issues still up in the air, even provisional drafting is impossible. And if the principals are going to take holidays in August, that leaves very little time. Only in September can we can expect to see some intensive talks, 

But the one thing we will see is an absolute determination from Barnier not to be seen as the fall guy. And with Johnson having shredded his last, tenuous reservoir of credibility, and having long ago exhausted the benefit of the doubt, it looks as if Covid plus Brexit will do this Teflon prime minister some serious damage.

Tales of incompetence, corruption and mendacity will eventually have an effect. Like rocks thrown in a pool, which don't show above the water until the pond is nearly full of them, we must be getting to the state where Johnson runs out of excuses and "rocks" begin to show.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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