Back in March, an opinion poll showed that 60% of people thought Britain was more divided than ever. Today, that figure is down to a mere 45%. I think the reason for that decline is simple: in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a feeling that we were, to coin a phrase, all in it together. I am not a stats person but the fact that we obeyed the government’s ‘stay at home’ instruction far more than they expected and paid attention to the social distancing rules showed in the British people a rare sense of community. That was exemplified in the weekly clap for carers. But now people are weary. Boris Johnson’s bluster about how things will be back to normal by Christmas convinces no one, except those who have fallen hook, like and sinker for his shtick. The light at the end of the tunnel was an advancing express.
Now we have left the European Union, many of us hoped, including remoaners like me, that the issue was behind us. We would get a deal that ensured we maintained trade links with Europe and a sensible deal over migration. It’s now becoming clear that prime minister Dominic Cummings is steering an inevitable path to a hard Brexit and that we will crash out without a deal. That will not help rebuild the country, but then neither will what comes next in terms of COVID-19 and its many consequences.
However much Johnson tries to persuade us that all is well and life can now carry on as normal, few believe him. It is not just in mainland Europe where new cases of COVID-19 are increasing. We’ve had a near 10% increase in the last week. The government now appears to be planning for the tougher lockdown we should have had in the first place. This would be all well and good, except that the long-awaited economic meltdown is almost upon us. At a time when we need maximum unity, Cummings and Johnson are working on a sudden rupture with our most important trading partners that will have devastating consequences on thousands of businesses and millions of workers.
Add to this a country that is already riven with inequality. Entirely predictably, the poorest have suffered most from COVID-19, not just in terms of fatalities but also in lost future opportunities for the young. It will not be the wealthy elite who pay for their children to attend fee paying schools who suffer most: it will be those who attend state schools, where social distancing will be all but impossible to maintain. You just know there will be spikes of the virus among teachers and support staff in schools which will inevitably result in closures. The poorest people will have to take time off their often low paid jobs to care for the children and you can bet that not all of them will get paid for it.
Listening to Johnson parroting Cummings’ thoughts and slogans is simply not enough. ‘Take back control’ worked four years ago, as did ‘Get Brexit done’ last December, but nonsense like ‘Build, build, build’ won’t cut it when people are losing their jobs by the million. There needs to be a plan, an overarching vision for the future. In fact, a vision for the present would be handy enough. Yet all I see is a government apparently making things up as it goes along.
We hear that it is young people who are causing the rise in COVID-19 cases. That may be the case for all I know, even if it has been fashionable to blame young people for everything. Yet it is the same young people whose prospects have been massively damaged by Brexit and now the virus. I suspect that some young people, at least, who have realised they are less at risk from the virus as old people like me, have simply had enough and have said ‘sod this, I’m getting on with my life’. (I am not convinced it’s just young people who are fault, though, but that’s for another day.)
To get through this crisis, we do need a united country. Why cannot Cummings and Johnson negotiate a softer Brexit in order to keep both sides happy, or perhaps make both sides less unhappy? Why not borrow hundreds of millions of pounds, repayable over 50, maybe 100, years in order to build a greener, more sustainable future, creating millions of good secure jobs? Put simply, why not come up with a plan where we are all in it together in the sense that we really are in it all together? It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of Great Britain, although it’s probably way above Johnson’s pay grade.
There were, and remain, positives that came out of Johnson’s half-arsed lockdowns, including community groups where people looked after each other. The government had nothing to do with that but people came together with no motive other than to help others. That, to me anyway, seems a far better template than Cummings’ chaos and divide and rule tactics.