Trust is the most precious commodity in any walk of life. The baleful fact is that the British government, in the midst of a profound and unprecedented crisis, is led by a man, and the party faction he represents, who cannot be trusted.
The atmosphere in No 10 is reported to be rancorous. Ministers, officials and special advisers are mutually suspicious. The prime minister, never a man for detail, habitually relies on foppish charm, wordplay and a ruthless readiness to make or drop any promise if it serves his interest. Whatever else this gang inspires, it’s neither loyalty nor trust.
In fairness, this is a crisis challenging governments everywhere. However, the prerequisite for navigating a path through it is a singleminded team that wants to use the state to secure the public good. Johnson’s double problem is that on top of the corrosive lack of trust he engenders, he and the bulk of his cabinet believe the Thatcherite cant that has done so much to erode resilience in our public institutions. The reason so many ministers are unconvincing at the daily press briefings is that good governance is not part of their mindset. Their fallback position when challenged is bluster, slogans, wild promises and evasion.
No 10 did not want to offend the European Research Group, but this could not be honestly admitted
Thus the unconvincing, and changing, answers to the issue of testing (invent a diagnostics industry in a month?) and to shortages of key medical equipment. Thus the reaction to the disclosure that the British government had not participated in the EU scheme jointly to procure ventilators. This was obviously because No 10 did not want to offend the European Research Group, but this could not be honestly admitted. Emails had gone missing; there was administrative “confusion”, claimed Michael Gove. All half-truths – perhaps worse; British officials had attended at least four EU meetings in which the joint buying of medical equipment was discussed.
The reality was ideological. There was nothing Britain could do jointly with the EU, Gove finally admitted, that it could not do as well as an independent country. That is not an attitude that signifies ”whatever it takes”, but puts, as critics have said, Brexit before breathing.
The reality playing out before our eyes is that the NHS, for all the wonderful dedication of its staff, has an embedded lack of resilience. This is revealed by the chronic shortage of intensive care beds and the cancellation of all non-elective urgent surgery for at least the next three months. For decades, it was understood that hospitals should operate at 85% capacity to give them the margin to deal with crises, but for the last 10 years NHS hospitals, under intense pressure from an austerity-driven Treasury to demonstrate their “efficiency”, have been forced to operate at 95% capacity. The accent in the British hospital is on “throughput” and “maximum resource utilisation”.
The reaction over the past few weeks has been great – the opening, on Friday of the first Nightingale hospital, in east London; the readiness of retired staff to accept recall; the response to the call for volunteers; the unflagging courage of NHS workers. But the health service started from a low base. Public health has been subordinate to the wider injunction: taxes must not rise because taxation is an encroachment on personal resource and liberty.
Running the NHS with insufficient resilience turns out to be vastly more costly than any potential savings
Suddenly, we are learning that the greater encroachment on personal liberty is the weakness of the public health system, a resource necessarily funded by taxes. Already, the lockdown has caused economic carnage – an expected fall in GDP of at least a quarter in the months ahead and a viciously sharp rise in unemployment. But the longer it lasts the worse the carnage. Running the NHS with insufficient resilience turns out to be vastly more costly than any potential savings.
Similarly, the social care sector, carelessly permitted to be largely owned and run by private equity firms, is inadequate for today’s demands. The philosophy of our welfare system is to put the punishment of claimants before their needs; now it suddenly has to deal with unexpected need on a massive scale. The British labour market may be highly flexible, allowing firms to manage their costs, but to stem a social disaster the chancellor’s furlough scheme is going to cost tens of billions.
The shortcomings extend more widely. The financial system has required a wholesale repurposing since the financial crisis. But this has not happened, nor has Britain developed robust public banking agencies that could help. Thus the weakness of the attempt to get hundreds of billions to distressed businesses at the appropriate speed and volumes. Similarly, no attempt had been made to reframe the relationship between business and society, hence the patchwork quilt of business responses, a few noble but too many distressingly self-interested.
No sustainable, vigorous exit from the lockdown is possible unless all this is addressed. Everyone’s confidence – consumers, workers and businesses alike – will be predicated on the assurance that Britain has a properly funded health and care system with the capacity to handle not just this pandemic but others. The wellbeing of our economy and society alike depend on it. And we need to recognise that laissez-faire individualism can never be the organising principle of the good society. Thatcherism, still the cherished creed of the Brexit Tory party, is wholly wrong.
Instead, the organising principles must be reciprocity of obligation, the need for public agency and the assertion of the public interest. Taxes will have to rise or the credit rating of UK government bonds will be marked down to crisis levels.
In short, we need good government by politicians who believe in it and understand the profundity of that responsibility. Good government is not achieved by half-truths, dissimulation and jokes. Johnson and his flyblown Brexity Tories are demonstrating, as Britain’s death rate begins to exceed Italy’s, that they are not the people for the task. The question is not if, but when the government accepts that its old faiths have died – and not if, but when it is forced aside by those who understand we need to trust our rulers.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist