openDemocracyUK: Opinion

I’ll tell you what’s ramping up – my anger at the UK government’s disingenuous script

Ministers talk as if the COVID-19 outbreak is all going to plan. I love escapist fantasy too, but the facts suggest otherwise.

James Cusick
James Cusick
1 April 2020, 10.57am
It's all going great
Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Early this week the spring edition of American Express’s Departures magazine came through my letterbox.

It was a decent edition – some pictures of a new Antarctic expedition, some stuff on sun-drenched Greek islands, temptations in Tuscany, a paradise beach in Okinawa.

This is an event that usually means a bout of serious travel dreaming. I’ll mentally note down a travel plan, even though I know the rest of my life will get in the way.

So did that happen? No, it bloody well didn’t .

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Departures? It should have been called Frustration Monthly. Queen’s Park, a short walk from my north London house, is as exotic as travel gets in these lockdown times.

And as for the feature on Paris restaurants – well, the fight in Sainsbury’s over a customer trying to buy three tins of spaghetti hoops when he was allowed only two is nearer my foodie reality than discussions over inventive bistros near the Champs Élysée.

When travel writing becomes a distraction rather than a pleasure, you begin to notice its flaws. Such as how you are being manipulated by cliches or beautiful images – and how asking too many questions might spoil the illusion on offer.

It’s not the only time I’ve had that experience this week. I’ve had just the same sense of frustration and being manipulated by trite scripts when I’ve listened to minister after minister explaining how everything they have done has been everything they could have done.

Apparently the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a step-by-step action plan, which at every point involved following expert advice – and according to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, all the right measures were taken at the right time.

In this scripted illusion – which is already sounding like a rehearsal of responses to the public inquiry that will inevitably follow this crisis – there are key words to look out for.

“Unprecedented support” is everywhere. Everything is being Ramped Up. Testing, frontline supplies, frontline support – “ramping up” is a ministerial obsession. Hotlines are being installed. “New hospitals” are being built – rather than field or emergency hospitals, or converted exhibition spaces.

According to one health minister, Edward Argar, everything the UK is doing is at “one of the highest levels in Europe”.

Argar dismissed criticism of the UK’s testing regime with the promise we’d be “ramping up testing capability” – and these were exactly his words – “from 5000 a day, to 10,000 a day, to 25,000 a day and ultimately to a quarter of a million a day”.

He was immediately asked when 25,000 tests a day might happen.

He said – and again, these are his exact words: “In the coming weeks – but I’m not going to give you a precise date for that.”

Why not? Well, because he doesn’t know. And offering to “ramp up” dateless promises is all there is.

If any of this makes you feel frustrated, you’re not alone. And the frustration – at least for me – isn’t eased when official scripts kick in.

When a minister sent out to ease anxiety promises to “ramp up testing” and then promises a sentence later to “ramp up” testing “at pace”, all without any detail or a timeline, that’s about as useful as, well, my Departures magazine. Nice images – but in the current crisis, meaningless and going nowhere.

We’re about to go into week two of this lockdown and I’m already fed up hearing that we were well prepared and everything is following an action plan.

The reality is different. Three months ago, no one outside China and Taiwan seems to have known that COVID-19 existed. As I write, over 600,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, with deaths approaching 30,000. Economies have crashed and health care systems are being shaken to their core. People are already talking about Generation C.

In early January the Chinese authorities contacted the World Health Organization about the emerging situation in Wuhan. The first new virus case outside mainland China was recorded on 20 January. A day later the first case in the US was confirmed. On 29 January the UK had its first two patients test positive.

Daily Express front page, 1 February 2020: "Rise and shine... it's a glorious new Britain"
Biggest story? | Daily Express. All rights reserved.

On 1 February, when Downing Street was obsessed with leaving the EU, and some newspaper front pages were celebrating “a glorious new Britain” or “Zero Hour”, there were 12,000 cases, 259 recorded deaths with 27 countries affected.

Ed Parker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s vaccine centre has tracked the global progress of the virus on an excellent map. It doesn’t track an accidental progress or the possibility of a global pandemic. It shows the inevitability of what’s happening right now.

On 11 February, when the virus was officially named COVID-19, there were almost 45,000 cases worldwide and over 2000 dead. Recorded cases of COVID-19 in the UK had risen to eight.

So on that February day, what was Boris Johnson promising to ramp up?

The Guardian front page, 11 February 2020, headlined "Johnson pledges £5bn overhaul of bus services to fend off HS2 revolt"
Don't you know there's a pandemic on? | The Guardian. All rights reserved.

Not testing. It was buses – a promise of £5 billion to overhaul the UK’s bus services, fend off the growing revolt over HS2 and “get Britain moving again”.

Look out your window right now – that’s what irony looks like.

A version of this article was broadcast on BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on 29 March.

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