Adam Boulton Diary

Coronavirus shatters the truisms of our age

BY Adam Boulton | tweet adamboultonSKY   /  20 March 2020

It has taken a global pandemic, but Covid-19 has managed to consign to the dustbin some of the questionable truisms that have dogged political debate for the past few decades.

The Government and civil service are rubbish and part of the problem

Ronald Reagan famously set the tone. “The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’” he jibed. Faced with mortal terrors people around the world have instead looked to governments to protect them. They in turn depend on public servants. Polls show high approval ratings for government actions in almost all countries. Most want “them” to do more.

Thank God for the civil service, they really run the country

Oh no they don’t. They need direction and, sometimes, a kick in the pants. An old clip from Yes Minister has gone viral in which Sir Humphrey discusses the Foreign Office’s standard four stage response in time of crisis:

  1. Nothing is going to happen.
  2. It may be happening but we should to nothing about it.
  3. Maybe we should do something but there’s nothing we can do.
  4. Maybe we could have done something but it’s too late now.

Public Servants set the government on the way to pursuing “herd immunity”. The Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance actually said that coronavirus should not be suppressed too hard because we want it to spread to the point that maybe 60% of the population is infected. By his own projections this would mean hundreds of thousands of deaths. This just might cut the death toll over decades (the science is not proven for this virus) but it is unacceptable for any government to sacrifice its present population in this way. It took a public and media outcry, followed by political pressure for the UK to get back on course trying to contain the disease.

The Main Stream Media are finished

See above. When people really need information they turn to trustworthy sources. Professional broadcasters, newspapers, magazines and websites are performing a vital public service. After trying to shut out mainstream media, the Johnson government has done a U-turn realising it needs to brief openly and without prejudice to get important messages out to the public. Meanwhile Twitter is introducing new measures to cut back dangerous fake news about the virus.

A Nudge is all you need

Inspired by “Nudge” a book by a couple of self-help psychologists, George Osborne set up what is now the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which is now a public company partly owned by the government. The idea is that you can use hints and persuasion to change public behaviour. Appeals for social distancing and self-isolation have not worked. In particular millennials are still frequenting pubs, clubs and gyms. Many seem to think that C-19 is like mild flu, and only dangerous to older people. Officials are now pointing out loudly that this isn’t true while the government is having to use its powers to shut down places of entertainment.

Government needs “weirdos and misfits”

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s high profile advisor who wrote that job advert, has had little to contribute during this outbreak. C-19 is real and not a propaganda campaign. To fight it we need politicians, public servants, real scientists, academic institutions, and proper public debate – all part of “the blob” which Cummings despises. As many have pointed out “super forecasters” didn’t see this one coming, and if any of did them did foresee it, they’ve had nothing to offer as to the responses needed.

Donald J. Trump “A very stable Genius!” Thank you

He tweeted that back in September. Here are some of his comments this year. “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China.” “Stock market starting to look very good to me.” “You take a solid flu vaccine”. “If we have thousands of people that get better by, you know, sitting around and even going to work – some of them go to work, but they get better” “I never said people that are feeling sick should go to work.” “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it.”

I rest my case. Is common sense making a comeback in politics that will last? It’s too soon to tell.


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