From David Maughan Brown in York: A second wave, a second botched response

October 12th

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is now assertively with us in the UK, and the government of England, having apparently learnt nothing whatever from the experience of the first wave, is busy botching its response to the second wave just as badly.  For the past five days the media have been trailing a momentous speech that Boris was due to make in parliament today in response to the rapidly increasing number of infections and hospitalisations, to be followed by the news conference I can hear droning on in the background as I write.   Boris’s unique contribution to the history of governance – government via deliberate leaks to, and covert briefing of, the media – has saved everyone who pays any attention to said media the pain of having to watch him and hear him telling us what, well before this last weekend, we already knew to be coming up the track at us.   After six months of concentrated deliberation by the great minds in Downing St., they have had the bright idea of instituting the kind of tiered lockdown system successfully implemented in South Africa six months ago.  All that today’s grand announcement amounted to, apart from the predicted three-tier system, was the equally well trailed fact that Liverpool is destined to enter Tier 3 – the severest level of restriction, with no social mixing, no pubs open, etc. – on Wednesday, the only area to do so.

The government’s dilemmas as the pandemic threatens to get out of control again, which I don’t envy them, include:  how to balance the competing demands of public health and the economy; how to communicate the extent of the crisis to an increasingly sceptical public; how to establish an appropriate balance between centralised and regionalised decision making; and how to provide the necessary resources to combat the virus in terms both of equipment, person-power and an efficient test and trace system.  

At every level the response is being botched again.  Where the Public Health/Economy dilemma is concerned, the painfully obvious question to ask is, why on a Wednesday start covertly briefing about further restriction measures that won’t be formally announced until the following Monday and only implemented on the Wednesday?  That could only serve as an invitation to anyone who felt so inclined to spend the weekend doing his or her best to contract the virus, with only one possible outcome where the infection statistics are concerned.   And what conceivable logic can there be to introducing exactly the same restrictions for pubs etc. in the Tier 3 areas as in March, but reducing the financial support offered to employers to the point of making both the retention of staff, and meeting the costs of living for any staff who are retained, unviable?  Where communication is concerned, it is probably too late to simplify and improve the desperately poor communication of the past few months with any realistic hope that everyone will listen: too many people in England, in marked contrast to Scotland and Wales, no longer trust government.  After very belatedly waking up to the idea of consulting the leaders of the supposedly devolved regions in ‘the North’ (after already having decided what he intended to do), Boris claims that he now has the agreement of those leaders to his decisions: this, like so much else he says, is untrue, as evidenced by the intention of a group of them to bring legal action against the government for implementing the measures without providing adequate support.  The test and trace system is, in spite of Boris’s boasts and promises, still wholly inadequate – and must have had a part to play in the surge of new infections.  

Associating Boris with botching brought a distant echo to mind, which, when I thought about it, I realised came from very vague memories of reading stories about Billy Bunter (Boris Botcher/Billy Bunter), the corpulent clown of the Lower Fourth Form at Greyfriars School, when I was about ten years old.  For a very quick memory refresher I resorted to Google where one can find Wikipedia listing Billy Bunter’s chief characteristics besides his corpulence. He was, we are told: ‘obtuse, lazy, racist, … deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited’ but combined these with a ‘cheery optimism’ and ‘comically transparent untruthfulness.’   It would be very unfair to imply that Boris is corpulent, given his partly successful efforts to reduce his weight after his hospital experience.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Sneak Culture

September 17.   Boris Johnson has given an interview to this morning’s Sun in which he is quoted as criticising the Home Secretary’s encouragement to neighbours to report breaches of the ‘Rule of Six’ to the authorities.  He told the newspaper that “I have never much been in favour of sneak culture myself.”

Only readers of a certain age and a deep immersion British boarding school literature will understand the meaning of a ‘sneak culture’.

For illumination, let us turn to an iconic figure in such stories, the rotund person of Billy Bunter.  In Billy Bunter’s Barring Out of 1948, Frank Richards’ eponymous hero is facing, not for the first time, a moral dilemma.  Bob Cherry, a fellow pupil in the Remove at Greyfriars School, is facing expulsion after a bag of soot was inadvertently dropped on the head of the master, Mr. Quelch.  Bunter announces to his class mates that he knows the culprit and intends to inform the headmaster.  His proposal arouses immediate hostility:

“That’s why—I—I—I mean, I—Look here, you fellows, I jolly well know who it was, and I’m going to tell the Head.”

“You can’t do that,” said Harry Wharton.  “You can’t give a man away—we don’t sneak in the Remove.  But you can tell us, and we’ll put it to the fellow to own up.”

“And we’ll put it pretty strong!” growled Johnny Bull. 

“I’m going to tell the Head,” persisted Bunter.  “’Tain’t sneaking—I’m no sneak, I hope!  Did you fellows ever know me do a rotten thing?  I ask you!”

‘Sneaking’ constituted a fundamental breach of the public-school code.  That Johnson should use the term betrays not just his upbringing but the juvenile way in which he conceives the restrictions his government has introduced.  On the one hand there is an intrinsically repressive state, prone to impose regulation in order to entrench its power.  On the other there is the community of the governed whose principal loyalty is to each other.  There is no offence greater than reporting misbehaviour to authority.

In a grown-up world, it might be supposed that citizens and the state have a common interest in rules designed to achieve the urgent objective of controlling infection.  If the agents of discipline, the police or local wardens, are seen as representatives of an alien regime, the prospects of observance diminish.  There will instead be a corresponding increase in jolly japes like un-distanced drinking or non-face-masked shopping.

For Billy Bunter, as ever, the story ended badly:

“So you’ve wriggled out of it, you fat worm?” exclaimed Bob Cherry…  “Gentlemen, chaps, and sportsmen,” said Bob Cherry.  “It was Bunter all the time, and he seems to have pulled the Head’s leg and got off.  I’m glad he isn’t bunked, but he’s going to be jolly well bumped—.”

“Oh, really, Cherry—!”

“Collar him!”

“Here, I say, you fellows—Leggo—Beasts—yaroooh!” roared Bunter, as he was collared. 

Bump! 

“Oh, crikey!  I say—.”

Bump! 

“Will you leggo?”

Bump! 

“Whoooooop!”

Billy Bunter sat on Smithy’s carpet, and roared.   

Our own fat worm deserves no less.