The British schools debacle continues apace as the BTEC awards are withdrawn a few hours before release, but this is just one example of multiple U-turns in the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among a long list of reversals since March we have had repeated changes of message on face coverings; failure to fulfil a commitment to open all primary schools in June; failure to bring in a crucial app to aid contact tracing, having previously said it would be “world-beating”; reversals on bereavement schemes and visa fees for health-service foreign nationals; reversal of policy on centralisation of national testing and tracing; reversal of the free school-meals policy; collapse of the policy to force the physical presence of MPs in Parliament and return to virtual attendance; reversal of the 12 March decision to limit community testing; and then, to cap it all, the current major reversals in school assessments.
These are in addition to repeated failures to address the pandemic itself that have been documented in great detail, especially since February, by openDemocracy. These more fundamental problems have occurred despite numerous warnings from the World Health Organization, especially over the crucial requirement for an efficient mass testing system. The UK has also ignored the rapid and relatively successful action taken in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, Finland and several others.
Quite extraordinarily, Boris Johnson’s government even failed to respond to what was happening in Europe back in February and early March, especially in Italy and Spain, just as it seems now to be responding far too slowly and weakly to the surge under way across much of Europe, let alone North America and the global south.
Yes, criticising with hindsight is easy, but that is no defence of Boris Johnson’s government. Prior to the pandemic the UK had what was, on paper, a competent expert-developed biological security strategy and had planned for a pandemic to the extent that it could claim to be a world leader.
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Under Johnson’s leadership, though, the government repeatedly failed to follow its own policies. Even the results of previous exercises and the detailed assessments in the ‘2019 National Security Risk Assessment' were ignored or downgraded, and a key sub-group of the National Security Council that would otherwise have raised the alarm, the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee, was actually closed down by Johnson as an unnecessary distraction from Brexit.
All this leads to the question: what lies behind the abject COVID failure of a state supposedly better prepared than almost any other yet turning out to be a basket case? There are numerous interlocking answers – but many of them revolve around a specific ideological position.
One answer lies in the serial incompetence of too many members of the Westminster cabinet. This is a result, in large part, of ministers being chosen primarily for their firm commitment to Brexit above all else.
At the root of this neoliberal outlook is an unswerving belief in a system of deregulated shareholder capitalism
A second is that in a key month in the whole debacle, January, Johnson’s government was immersed in the sterling victory of Brexit. Nothing else counted, not even a looming pandemic. Related to this was the sense of euphoria in the wake of the election success last December and the ascent to Parliament of many Conservative MPs whose unexpected success could ensure loyalty, at least at the start.
Behind that success lay some more profound ideological changes that had been developing for forty years, first under Margaret Thatcher and more recently under David Cameron and Theresa May.
At the root of this neoliberal outlook is an unswerving belief in a system of deregulated shareholder capitalism. This incorporates a deep distrust of local government, the public sector and intergovernmental cooperation, especially in the EU, and entrenched antagonism to trade unions and other aspects of labour relations.
Financial deregulation and tax reform designed to benefit business success and wealth acquisition are further components, with progressive privatisation of public services, especially the NHS, and underfunding of what remains being helpful instruments to this end.
Prior to COVID-19, when Johnson took over the Conservative Party last year, a swathe of special advisors was put into Downing Street and all key ministries, many coming from the Tufton Street cluster of neoliberal think tanks. The pandemic has been a golden opportunity to accelerate the final stages of the neoliberal transition.
Thus, the intention is to merge the NHS with social care, with the latter already substantially in private hands, and to transform the planning system to further deregulate and thereby enable developers to extend their power, even though the big four housebuilders already have an available land bank of around half a million undeveloped plots.
The most recent initiative is to combine test and trace with elements of Public Health England. The former is already largely contracted out to private companies and the latter has been starved of funds over the past decade. Doing this right in the middle of one of the biggest public health crises in a century does take some nerve, but neoliberal self-belief in Johnson’s circles, if not in Johnson himself, remains at an all-time high. Indeed, throughout the pandemic the opportunity has been taken to contract out as much as possible, frequently avoiding competitive tender.
Moreover, Johnson’s government has systematically downgraded Parliament’s role in assuring accountability, thus making it more difficult for opposition parties to hold government to account.
The transition to a true neoliberal system may seem unstoppable but there are reasons to think otherwise. Johnson’s narrow circle of believers is convinced of the rightness of its position but its campaigning abilities are simply not matched by competence in governance. Crisis after crisis have seriously eroded confidence from what, six months ago, seemed an unassailable position. Even the normally supportive print media, dominated by just three right-wing billionaire families, is getting uneasy, as are many Conservative MPs, including those previously loyal new members.
Some elements of the broadcast media appear to have sensed the changing mood and are reflecting it in more critical journalism: the main evening bulletin on ITN is now very different to its BBC rival.
On top of that, there are alternative well-informed serious news and analysis outlets, including openDemocracy and Double Down News, that are filling the gaps in the mainstream media.
Add to this is the growth of hundreds if not thousands of community action and support groups across the country, many boosted by the current crisis, and then add one more fundamental element that is frequently forgotten.
The neoliberal model is being constructed by a small but dominant faction within an unusually right-wing Conservative Party. Therein lies a potential flaw. If all the power is in a few hands, there is no one else to blame when it all goes pear-shaped. In that connection the many recent instances of desperate searches for scapegoats are simply not striking the chords they should. Convinced neoliberals may not have noticed, but they ought to, especially with the prospect of a hard winter to come.