(Header image: Ben Shread/Cabinet Office from Wikimedia Commons)
Among many bad weeks for Boris Johnson’s government, this week has been particularly notable; we’ve seen the possible break-up of the union and 100,000 Covid deaths.
The Union with Scotland
The Sunday Times’ headline last weekend showed Scotland and Northern Ireland both in favour of separating from the UK, coinciding with the SNP’s plan on how to hold a second independence referendum if they gain a majority in May’s elections.
The impact of Johnson on the ever-weakening union is important to consider; being the champion of Brexit and then face of 100,000 Coronavirus deaths; his popularity in Scotland is around 19%.
Johnson visited Glasgow on Thursday, despite Nicola Sturgeon questioning whether or not this constituted as ‘essential travel’. Health is devolved, so Johnson’s visit to testing and vaccination centres is undoubtedly in response to growing clamour for a second independence referendum.
However, as part of this charm offensive, Johnson said that Scottish independence is “irrelevant”, which seems a particularly odd comment given that 56% of Scots have said they would vote Yes.
Divisive? Yes. Irrelevant? No.
Regarding ‘indyref2’, there has been a significant shift for some time now towards a majority supporting independence. Scotland strongly voted to remain in the EU referendum, and a majority of the population also think Nicola Sturgeon would have handled the pandemic better.
Whilst Scotland is in charge of health, the initial lockdown decisions were all taken with a ‘four nations’ approach, so Johnson was more visibly responsible.
Coronavirus death-toll reaches 100,000
The death-toll this week has been the focus of all the government briefings, featuring Johnson himself speaking on Tuesday to announce the grim milestone.
The government has repeatedly claimed this week that it has done everything it could to prevent this, causing significant backlash. The original estimation of 20,000 deaths as a ‘good’ outcome has been brought up again and again - a number that last year seemed unbelievable. Now, with five times that, the government’s line that they 'did all they could' seems particularly unconvincing to many.
The UK has one of the highest death-rates in the world, and this is particularly harrowing when we consider that more than half of the total deaths from Covid-19 have been registered since November.
The challenge and pressure placed upon politicians during the Coronavirus pandemic has been immense, and if we think back to last April there was a degree of public understanding that this was as unprecedented for the government as anyone else. However, approaching a year on, public sympathy seems to have vanished.
Boris Johnson stated that he would “exhaust the thesaurus of misery” to find the words to describe the 100,000 deaths statistic instead of the projected 20,000. Words will not be enough for many however, with this period evermore painful because despite the words of the Prime Minister, many consider these deaths preventable.
The government has continued to emphasise that the new variant significantly changed the UK’s situation back in December, however news outlets this week have also been keen to bring up the fact that SAGE scientists were advocating for another lockdown before the end of September.
The multiple U-turns on schools (Secretary for Education, Gavin Williamson, threatened to sue a school in December to stay open), repeated delaying of lockdowns and open borders are all reflections of a government consistently struggling to get ahead of the virus. The second wave reflects the failure of the UK government to learn from its mistakes in the first wave.
It is true that the UK has struggled to cope with Covid for other reasons, poor public health, dense cities and as a global hub of transport. Many have been asking this week when a public inquiry will be held, but just as the government said it wasn’t the time back in September when doctors demanded one, they have repeated the same statement this week.
From Johnson’s initial claim to ‘send coronavirus packing’ within twelve weeks and boasting of shaking hands with coronavirus patients; the extreme death toll will likely be remembered as a reflection of inadequacy from the government.
The Conservative administration had barely been in office for a month prior to the beginning of the pandemic, at which point their focus was on leaving the EU at the end of January.
Johnson’s premiership thus far has been defined by Coronavirus, with the occasional Brexit controversy.
Schools and Quarantine Hotels
It has been suggested that the government is finally beginning to under-promise and over-deliver however, by refusing to confirm if schools will be able to open at the very earliest on the 8th March.
This week has seen a battle between parents, politicians and medical experts on exactly when children will be able to return to school. The government has had to weigh up the struggle for working parents and the limited risks to children directly, with the fact that having schools open inevitably increases transmission. North of the border, there’s been no announcement yet but changes are likely to be similar.
At PMQs on Wednesday, opposition leader Kier Starmer reminded the Prime Minister that the most vulnerable children are struggling with home education, and many are still waiting on promised laptops. With months away from classrooms, inequalities between pupils are only likely to widen.
The other micro-drama for the UK government was the debate surrounding introducing quarantine hotels. Thirty countries where new variants have been found have been added to a list of those who will be required to quarantine for ten days in government-provided accommodation.
There was much debate this week over which countries would be included, whether foreign nationals would have to pay for the hotel themselves, and who would be exempt. Ultimately, this is another area where the UK is catching up with the rest of the world - countries such as Australia and China have had similar rules for some time now. The four nations of the UK set separate Coronavirus rules, but Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are likely to adopt very similar measures.
Looking ahead to next week, we may begin to see whether UK vaccine resources become stretched, or whether the government’s target to vaccinate the most vulnerable by mid-February still seems achievable.