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PA images, Sky News

'Boris Johnson has presided over a broken Kingdom in which Covid-19 has been able to flourish'

Peter Flanagan says Johnson’s failure to sack Dominic Cummings is just another in a long line of disastrous moves for the UK.

AS ENGLAND BEGINS to leave lockdown, it’s looking like it barely had one in the first place. Mobile data from Google has suggested that many began to relax their adherence to quarantine measures weeks before they were officially loosened, while footage of conga-lines on VE Day infuriated those taking social distancing seriously.

Boris Johnson’s defence of Dominic Cummings’ now infamous 260-mile jaunt across the country has only underlined a sense that the rules simply didn’t apply to everyone. The consequences of this cop-out are potentially devastating for public health – if the prime minister’s top advisor doesn’t take government advice seriously, why should anyone else?

The indifference to social distancing rules some people apparently hold is all the more striking against the backdrop of Britain’s staggering Covid-19 mortality rate. When Italy’s death toll reached its peak, the population there was rightly beside itself with grief. When Britain approached the same milestone, many whistled past and appeared indifferent.

Mixed messaging

It’s not that the English are fundamentally less caring than Italian people, but it has begun to look like decades of a winner-takes-all political system and a bear-pit media landscape has conditioned the public to a degree of ambivalence to each other’s well-being.

In Italy, breaking quarantine could incur fines of up to €3,000; in England, people could be seen congregating in groups at places like London Bridge, clapping for an NHS they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to stay in and protect. The nation’s pandemic denial seemed to reach its delirious nadir on VE Day, with reports of some parties spilling out onto the street and under the sun, boiling and bubonic, a national pageant of pestilence.

We shouldn’t judge the people of England too harshly – consider the quality of information and direction received from the top. Confused, contradictory communication has been the hallmark of the prime minister’s pandemic response, the unreliability of his statements being their only reliable aspect.

Mere months after helping to demonise migrant workers as part of his divisive Brexit agenda, Johnson was on television praising the immigrant nurses who helped save his life. Nothing means anything: stay at home, or don’t stay at home. Go back to your own country, or don’t. Empty words gushing from a void.

Alan Turing would struggle to decode Johnson’s messaging. Last week he said that immigrants working in the NHS would be liable to pay a £624 surcharge if they were to avail of the NHS themselves. He did a U-turn on this within 24 hours – these people did stop him from dying after all.

Adding further confusion to things has been the announcement of a two-week quarantine for visitors to the UK, months after a move like this might have been effective. The fact that Britain’s infection rates means that British people pose more of a threat to visitors than vice versa is apparently lost on the government. It’s the equivalent of the Titanic refusing new bookings after hitting the iceberg, or Kong imposing restrictions on visitors to Skull Island.

It’s Brexit, stupid

The truth is that strict enforcement of lockdown would have been fundamentally off-brand for Johnson, whose popularity largely depends on his perceived anti-establishment, class-clown persona. Britain’s blonde, blustering answer to Moses, he couldn’t very well lead his people to freedom from Brussels only to put them under house arrest weeks later.

The result was a lockdown in name only, leaving citizens largely free to go where they liked under the pretext of ‘exercise’. Take Nigel Farage, who travelled to the coast to record a message vilifying imagined illegal migrants: nothing burns off those quarantine calories like shouting angry rhetoric by the sea.

Over 36,000 people dead or not, denying Farage this freedom would have been essentially un-British. If we stopped letting Brexiteers traverse the countryside spreading stories about minorities, we’d be letting the virus win.

The situation has not been helped by the reluctance by some in the press to reflect meaningfully on how an island nation with a generous head start could perform so dismally, instead focusing on news like Johnson’s girlfriend giving birth. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn had upwards of six children with different women tabloids would celebrate his virility too – more likely however his sexcapades would be denounced as a communist plot to inflate the youth vote.

Heaven forbid the Tory leader might face the kind of contempt faced by other members of society who have children out of wedlock. When a prime minister does it, his libido is simply the carnal manifestation of Empire or the colonisation of women’s reproductive systems. Generations from now, Johnson will be remembered like a 21st-century Genghis Khan – not because of any political achievements, but because half the population will be able to trace their ancestry to his seed.

Johnson’s refusal to sack Cummings’ is just the latest in a stream of maddening contradictions and double-standards which have defined his political career. He probably expects to just style the scandal out, as he has during the innumerable blunders of his past.

Unfortunately, Britain’s staggering pandemic death statistics are immune to spin. They are not the result of chance but required years of underfunding public services, the demonisation of the informed and deification of the ignorant.

Of course, Johnson did not create this miserable virus, but he has presided over a broken Kingdom in which the disease has been able to flourish. His words are capricious and senseless, but the consequences of his actions have been crystal clear.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter at @peterflanagan.

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