Richard North, 27/07/2020  

There is nothing so sacred in this secular society as the annual holiday abroad. And just when the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic had lifted sufficiently to allow the resumption of package tours to Spain, a resurgence has closed down the window of opportunity, and restrictions are back on.

There is no knowing the precise political effect of the government's action, in imposing a two-week quarantine on travellers returning from Spain, thereby effectively shutting down the holiday market.

However, the short notice of the measure, and the fact that the upsurge of the disease is confined largely to the northeast of the country, means that a lot of people believe they have had their plans disrupted unnecessarily. And it is a lot of people. An estimated 1.8 million Brits are facing "chaos". For this sort of thing, there is usually a political penalty.

The dynamic nature of the disease distribution means that the government could impose "handbrake restrictions" on countries beyond Spain, at very short notice. This injects uncertainty into the market, where potential holidaymakers will be reluctant to make plans, while carriers and tour operators will have difficulty providing – and funding – their schedules.

Hospitality providers in destination countries will be hard hit – more so than they already have been – with ongoing economic effect. Employment in these areas, which has already taken a hit, can expect to be further damaged.

What this also demonstrates is that – contrary to the projections of some pundits – recovery is not likely to be linear. To a very great extent, the disease does not respond to traditional control measures and, although treatment techniques are improving all the time, there are still a great many unknowns about the behaviour of the virus.

Those who expect a steady decline in the disease, and glibly talk of unleashing economic growth as we begin to recover, are almost certainly being unrealistic. Even the availability of a vaccine may not be as helpful as anticipated. Conferred immunity may be extremely short-lived, making it very difficult to reach and maintain the required level of herd immunity.

Under such circumstances, vaccines tend to have most value in controlling the spread of localised outbreaks, where a large proportion of the population at risk can be immunised over a short period of time.

Probably the best we can hope for nationally is a two-step forwards, one-step backwards, type of scenario. If we are unlucky, it could be more like one step forwards and two back. Uncertainty rules, and the Gods will mock those who have the temerity to make firm plans.

During the summer months, though – late July to August – normal politics are suspended. Even in times of great national crisis that seems to be the case. Accounts of the run-up to war in September 1939 speak of an unreal period of detachment in the summer, where everyone was determined to make the most of what could be the last holiday period for some time.

The unreality is certainly with us for the moment, as the idiot prime minister devotes his attention to his idea of an obesity campaign – with about as much prospect of success as his fatuous venture into hand-washing training as a measure to control a disease which, even then, was obviously airborne.

It doesn't seem as if Johnson has understood the message that people generally prefer their prime ministers to provide political leadership, managing the government and dealing with the affairs of state. As an unqualified provider of health education advice, he not only sucks – he's acting way below his pay grade.

But it's not only that. The majority of studies into obesity (as a modern epidemic) show a strong relationship with the consumption of ultra-processed food, and in particular the consumption of glucose and high-fructose corn syrups hidden in processed foods.

This is an area in which government could, and should, legitimately take a hand, taking on the food processing giants and limiting the use of these ingredients – something made much easier now that we have left the EU and can break away from its food standards.

Instead of dealing with the problem at source, though, Johnson takes the cheap shot of nannying people about life-style, wasting millions on "weight loss coaches" at GP surgeries when most people find it difficult enough getting doctors' appointments for their normal ailments.

As The Times devotes its cartoon to the "nanny state", with a Johnson-figure dressed as Mary Poppins telling us that it's "time to cut out those spoonfuls of sugar", there is a certain interest in trying to estimate how long it will take people to realise that they have in this prime minister a man who chronically under-performs. The question, though, is more nuanced than a simple guess as to when people will finally wake up.

Given that we are so distant from the mechanisms of government, and so few people (including MPs) now seem to have the first idea of how government actually works, the test will be whether the majority can understand the difference between a competent practitioner, and an empty showman who is just going through the motions – and whether they even care.

But in the chosen political battleground, we are looking at a prime minister who is failing to take legitimate and necessary actions to promote the nation's health, preferring instead to take showy, and largely ineffective measures that impinge directly on personal responsibilities.

It is hardly the case, though, that we needed any more evidence to confirm that, in Johnson, we have a man who has very little understanding of what is happening around him. His comments on the first anniversary of his premiership were a case in point, where he blandly admitted that ministers could have done some things "differently".

If by now, the prime minister doesn't have a clear idea of what went wrong and why, he never will. And, as this is the man who thinks, "probably, the single thing that we didn't see at the beginning was the extent to which it was being transmitted asymptomatically from person to person", it is plainly obvious that he doesn't have a clue.

If there was a single thing to which one would attribute the failure of government – in its entirety – it is the failure to plan for an epidemic of communicable disease, where neither vaccines nor prophylactic drugs were available.

The fact is that this, and previous governments planned on the basis of an influenza model, where the working assumption was that the effects of the disease could be mitigated by the use of massive stockpiles of anti-viral drugs, buying time for a vaccine to be prepared and distributed.

To get to the point of appreciating (more fully) that the prime minister is totally out of his depth, we had to go through the charade of the toe-curling Kuenssberg interview last week. This had him telling us that "he wants to concentrate on what's next, not what's gone before".

In one fell swoop, this vacuous little man would sweep away centuries of accumulated experience and wisdom, in order to start again at "year zero" where there can be no blame for what had gone before.

This is the domain of blame-free governance, where everything is a "learning experience" and no-one in power is responsible for the consequences of their actions. Blame is for little people, and consequences are things that just happen.

"Maybe there were things we could have done differently", Johnson says. That's the best he can do – maybe? This is the man who thinks our test, track and trace system is "world beating". He is an embarrassment, and a dangerous one to boot.

And where we still have TransEnd to come, and the inevitable mess and economic stress that that will bring, we are dealing with a man who isn't safe to let out by himself, an empty vessel with nothing to offer.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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