What will it take to make the British public angry about the government’s spectacular mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis? When will we reach the tipping point?
The latest revelation about the government’s shambolic, catastrophic conduct, which has led to tens of thousands of needless British deaths, is a doozy even by its own dismally low standards.
Some 50 million face masks bought in April will now not be used by the NHS because they fail to meet safety standards. They use ear loop rather than head loop fastenings, and so they may not fit snugly enough to properly protect medical personnel who’ve been dying for the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
They were bought as part of a £252m contract, about which there is a story that’s almost so bizarrely, ridiculously awful that when I read it, I had to pinch myself.
The supplier is called Ayanda Capital, a name which, if you’ve spent any time at all in financial journalism, spells hedge funds, private equity and other City of London japes. As Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, which is taking legal action over the affair, details in a devastating Twitter thread, that is indeed what it was involved in before it turned government supplier of useless medical equipment.
Currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing. Ding! Owned through, you’ve guessed it, a tax haven. Ding ding. No apparent history with medical supplies. Ding ding ding.
But it gets worse. The deal was brought to the government by one Andrew Mills, who is one of the advisers to the pompously named Board of Trade. The actual involvement of him and the company is quite murky, as the thread makes clear, and the government insists he wasn’t involved in the decision-making process. But he seems to have done quite well out of the deal.
Maugham details a tangled web in what he calls “the most extraordinary thread I’ve ever written”. That’s quite a statement given the arena in which he fights, but read it. This is no ranty conspiracy-touting Twitter guff. It is carefully and conscientiously laid out. There are documents (appropriately highlighted). And there is also a lawsuit that they will no doubt form a part of. Which could be fun.
Yet despite this, the continuing mess of contact tracing, Boris Johnson’s push to open pubs but not schools (do I really need to go on?), the government retains a modest lead in the opinion polls.
This seems to be, as my colleague John Rentoul detailed earlier this week in asking why Johnson isn’t more unpopular, because a substantial chunk of the British public is willing to give his administration the benefit of the doubt.
The narrative goes something like this: 1. This was a disaster that came from out of the blue and the pressures facing the government must be unbelievable. 2. That being the case, some mistakes were inevitable. 3. Give them a break, they’re doing their best.
The problem with that is: 1a. This didn’t come out of the blue. The government knew something like it was coming, ran scenarios and made preparations but then allowed them to wither on the vine.
1b. It also had the experience and learnt lessons of Asian countries where the virus struck earlier to call upon, yet it failed to heed them. Some of those countries have done much better at containing it without that advantage.
2b. It’s true that some errors were inevitable even in a best-case scenario (which this is not) and some errors can be forgiven. But the government has made a series of basic, avoidable, and unforgivable mistakes thanks to its general air of dysfunction; the placing of loyalty to the dear leader above basic competence; its ideological obsessions.
Remember, the UK could have been part of an EU PPE purchasing plan, but went out on its own for purely ideological reasons. It then panicked. This screw-up is the result. It isn’t a Remain/Leave argument by the way. It’s just a fact. And you can find more like it easily enough.
3b. No, no Johnson and co don’t deserve a break. We’re still battling a pandemic and yet the government seems fixated on civil service reform. This is the worst possible time to be busting heads in Whitehall unless, oh. Right. You need something to detract people’s attention from the cock-ups you’ve made.
I could go on. I will (a bit). There was also Johnson’s svengali Dominic Cummings and his virus-spewing trip up north when everyone else was hiding in their homes. That’s the one thing that seems to have actually moved the dial with the public (a bit).
There’s the mixed messaging that’s resulted in people all but abandoning social distancing, the flat-footed decision-making that has, among other things, led to the UK lagging behind the rest of the world over the adoption of masks by the public.
If this is Johnson doing his best he’s about at the level of Macclesfield Town on the world leader league table: just a pip above relegation into the non-league netherworld where the complete incorrigibles are to be found.
I confess that every morning when I speak to my editors I come away with the feeling that we are, in fact, living in one of the weird dystopian scenarios cooked up by classic 1960s sci-fi shows infused by cold war paranoia. Think The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.
A part of me also thinks this can’t get any worse. Surely it isn’t possible for ministers to be this, well, crap? Surely there’s someone at home when the lights are on in their offices? And then the estimable Maugham, or someone like him, or just my own research through the course of my job, demonstrates that no, they’re not just that bad. They’re worse.
Sometimes I admit to feeling despair. But that lets them off the hook. Anger is the correct response, and while this might not ultimately be the tipping point, it will have to come.