Richard North, 12/10/2020  

It's all very well the government fronting Jonathan Van-Tam - presumably as an "inclusive" BAME figure – but it won't wash. Authority figures are wasting assets. My personal response to their appearance on the telly, even before they start speaking, is to utter the "foxtrot oscar" epithet and switch off.

Van-Tam, though, is in The Guardian - amongst friends, one might think. Thus, he is allowed to churn out the same old crap, demonstrating that the medical establishment has learned absolutely nothing from this epidemic.

The man is still bleating about the "R-number for the UK", telling us it is "between 1.2 and 1.5". It doesn't matter about the real world, the world where there is no national outbreak, but a series of localised outbreaks.

Each outbreak has its own specific characteristics – its own specific R-number. There is no national number – the concept is meaningless. Yet these fuckwits keep churning it out, and we're supposed to take them seriously?

Van-Tam is still asking people to "stick to the rules" to suppress the resurgence of the virus – even though Cummings didn't, now added to by others who believe their shit doesn't stink.

And still we get the same old crap about telling people that they should be "washing their hands regularly". They can't even get the phrasing right, confusing "regular" with "frequent". If I wash my hands every 10-30 minutes, that's frequent. If I wash them every ten days, that's regular. Is that what they want?

As for hand washing – that's the flu model, where fomite transmission is significant. For Covid-19, it's insignificant – yet hundreds of thousands of NHS staff are wrecking their skin, suffering painful dermatitis because their managers want excessive handwashing, and don't even have the sense to provide industrial barrier cream – a clear breach of their health and safety responsibilities.

But, for all that, it's down to us. Van-Tam tells us that the UK is at a "tipping point" in the Covid-19 crisis and must act swiftly to avoid history "repeating itself". Never mind that Van-Tam and his mates have made a complete pigs-ear of test and trace. Never mind that that is probably the main reason why history is in danger of repeating itself.

How different it was last time, as Andrew Rawnsley reminds us.

When the national lockdown was imposed towards the end of March, Johnson declared: "We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together". More than 90 percent of the population backed the restrictions on their lives and Johnson enjoyed a big surge in his personal approval ratings.

Seven months on as we head into what threatens to be a bleak winter, that semblance of unity has fractured, with divisions on stark display, Rawnsley writes.

Although this fracturing has several causes. the consensus during the first wave was sustained by the idea that the government would use the lockdown to ensure that the country was better equipped by the time the virus returned. The prime minister explicitly made this his bargain with the public.

Although there have been improvements, we don't need Rawnsley to tell us that the accumulation of blunders has cost the government trust, credibility and authority. And no government can create a consensus behind tough decisions unless it commands confidence that it knows what it is doing.

Nor do we need him to tell us that Johnson started to lose the public some time ago. Voter approval of his handling of the crisis turned negative in mid-May and has been on a downward path since.

Trust in the government has been exhausted not just by the many examples of ministerial ineptitude, but also by rule-breaking by public figures, notably the eye-testing excursions of Dominic Cummings. That's been compounded by confused and contradictory communication.

Rawnsley adds to this the weekend's mess of cabinet wrangling, prime ministerial indecision and muddled messaging over the plan to split England into three tiers, with differing severities of restriction depending on the region.

It was always bound to end in tiers, but that scheme, leaked days ago, has still not been officially launched because the cabinet is split. Rawnsley cites one of those conveniently anonymous senior figures, familiar with the battles within cabinet and inside Number 10. "Will they announce something on Monday? God knows", he says. "I hope so. They must clear up all the confusion".

The further analysis is worth reading but it doesn't add anything to the bigger picture. The Johnson administration has blown it and the situation is beyond recovery. Whatever the prime minister does now, Rawnsley concludes, there will be no consensus behind it.

The intriguing thing, as the Telegraph reminds us, is that the situation, although dire, has not reached levels anything like as bad as Patrick Vallance warned.

At a Downing Street press conference on 22 September, he presented us with a graph showing case numbers doubling every week, with deaths growing past 200 a day. He thus projected 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day by mid-October unless ministers placed new restrictions on daily life.

It almost goes without saying that the latest figures are not close to the doomsday levels. According to Vallance's worst-case scenario, we would need to be seeing upwards of 40,000 cases confirmed. Daily infections would need to rise by a further 37,128 on Sunday's total to hit 50,000 by 13 October, as suggested by his model.

Hence, it's just as well they got Van-Tam to do the "tipping point" warning in the Guardian. At least he is able to distance himself from Vallance's projections. And even if realised, there is no way the current, apparent surge in cases can be taken as comparable with the first peak, given the vast increase in testing.

Deaths are, of course, a trailing indicator, but for as long the rate is a fraction of the April peak, there is going to be some difficulty in taking any government sources seriously. Even where our local case figures look worrying, for instance, there have been no further deaths reported in Bradford today.

As government credibility drains away, therefore, we are beginning to see a series of challenges mounted, the latest a legal challenge mounted by business leaders over lockdown restrictions which have so damaged the hospitality industry.

Sacha Lord, the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, who is leading the challenge, is hoping to overturn the restrictions. He has instructed lawyers to draft a submission to the government, challenged Westminster to produce the science behind the "draconian and dramatic" rules.

"We are calling out for the scientific evidence that supports closure. The vast majority of businesses have put in place impeccable measures to protect their customers, all at an extra cost to their business, yet it feels like the government are taking another cheap shot at the hospitality industry", he says.

Largely, though, the government is taking a cheap shot at the whole of the country, and that is where the greatest challenges will take place – not in any overt, or obvious way but as people increasingly take their own views of which restrictions to adopt, and generally ignore their political leaders.

Trust in government is a hard-won thing and, in only a few months, Johnson has squandered the massive reserves built up by his predecessors. And, in the longer run, trust might prove to be the biggest casualty of the epidemic, apart from those thousands who die untreated of non-Covid disease, because the NHS has been hijacked.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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