Boris Johnson needs to get a grip

6 June 2020

7:00 PM

6 June 2020

7:00 PM

It’s pointless to deny that the government is currently performing poorly across a wide range of fronts – and I say that as someone who voted Conservative with enthusiasm in December and who wishes the government well.

Despite the shrill claims of some, the onset of an epidemic of a horrible new disease would clearly have been testing for any administration – which largely explains why some things are coming apart at the seams.

But another highly damaging factor is now at work: the rolling out of obviously half-baked ‘blunt instrument’ policies that have not been subject to even the most basic of sensible refinements.

For instance, the policy of imposing quarantine on international arrivals – rejected by the government in the days before the virus got out of control – is now steadfastly advanced by ministers as being essential to stop the virus getting out of control again.

Unfortunately, the government is preparing a wholly unselective quarantine system. Nearly every person coming into the UK from another country will have to self-isolate for 14 days, including UK nationals returning from abroad.

So someone flying home long-haul from New Zealand, which all-but eradicated Covid-19 many weeks ago, will be subject to the same restrictions as someone hot-footing it here from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, where the disease is rife.

Surely it is perfectly obvious that a selective quarantine regime, focusing on arrivals from those countries with a higher current incidence of the disease than the UK, is the way to go. This could contribute to the overall public health effort without causing frankly ridiculous levels of extra damage to our already-ailing economy.

Another example can be found in the government’s decision to make mask-wearing mandatory on public transport. If ever there was a policy that should have come with a sunset clause attached it is this. There would be far wider public acceptance of mask wearing if Grant Shapps said the requirement would lapse after six weeks, unless he specifically instigated a Commons debate and vote to extend it. Instead there is no apparent time limit set on the requirement, and this extreme measure seems to be intended to continue indefinitely, as part of what people are dismally calling ‘the new normal’.

The most serious outbreak of ‘blunt instrumentism’ is in an area nothing to do with coronavirus. It concerns the government’s extraordinary decisionto offer a path to permanent residence and citizenship to all three million Hong Kong citizens who qualify for British National Overseas status.

The policy was clearly intended to pile pressure on the Chinese Communist party, so it does not implement its draconian new security legislation in Hong Kong. But any such leverage it gained came at the cost of driving a coach and horses through the government’s manifesto pledge to bring overall immigration down. The implications of an influx of people would be highly problematic for housing shortages, transport infrastructure, public services capacity, social cohesion and public faith in the political process. It is reminiscent in its recklessness of Tony Blair’s decision to throw open the UK labour market to all citizens of the A8 new EU member states without even utilising available transitional controls.

Yet just as much leverage, arguably even more, could have been gained had a senior minister announced that the UK intended to build an international coalition of countries ready to offer settlement to many of Hong Kong’s brightest and best and that, yes, Britain would set an example with a generous offer of its own.

That would have given ministers future room for manoeuvre and allowed the Conservative party to finally deliver the substantially lower overall immigration levels it has been promising voters for more than a decade.

Throughout last year it was often remarked that the tortuous Brexit process was taking up the entirety of the government’s ‘bandwidth’. This year it is the fight against Covid-19 that seems to have robbed an array of two dozen senior ministers and scores of senior advisers the ability to multi-task.

And so it was left to junior minister Kemi Badenoch to take issuewith those seeking to exploit the George Floyd killing. But why was this case not being made by the Home Secretary or indeed by the Prime Minister himself?

A few days ago Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer resorted to one of the easiest soundbites available to him when he demanded that Boris Johnson should ‘get a grip’. Such statements are beloved by leaders of the opposition because they seek to exploit an impression of government incompetence without tying the opposition to any specific position. The public usually finds them easy to ignore for that very reason.

But every once in a while ‘get a grip’ captures the mood of the times and must be counted as fair comment. This, I’m afraid, is one of those moments.

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