What were March’s war aims?

Byline Times published this from me at the beginning of August:

If we were in a war, what was our war aim?

Leighton Andrews

The rhetoric of war has underpinned the UK Government’s view of Covid-19 since the beginning. ‘We must act like any wartime government’, said the Prime Minister on 17 March. The latest figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University suggests that the UK – largely because of England – has proportionately the highest death rate in the world. If we’re in a war, we aren’t winning. 

Many sensible people have suggested that the language of war is not appropriate. But since that has been the government’s language since the beginning, let’s take it at face value. If we were in a war, what was the war aim? What was the point of lockdown? With the easing of lockdown now on hold in England, don’t be surprised if more and more people come to question the Johnson government strategy. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ football fans chant at a referee who loses control of a game. It seems an apt summary of the government’s strategy. 

So let’s go back to the beginning. Before lockdown started on 23 March. 

On 20 March, the Prime Minister said his objective in respect of the virus was, ‘by eliminating it, to stamp it out.’ Many of us went into lockdown hoping that indeed the government’s strategy was the elimination of the virus. That lockdown would buy us time. That systems would be in place by the end of lockdown to ensure we got to a point where we could do rather more than ‘control the virus’. 

Eliminating the virus has not featured in the government’s strategy since then. You won’t find elimination in the messages about easing the lockdown. Instead, ‘our apparent success’, declared on 27 April, our ‘victory over this virus’ announced by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on 23 June, is that the NHS was not overwhelmed. 

It’s good news that the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed in any of the nations of the UK. It was a reasonable, indeed important, objective to protect the NHS. But was that really the war aim? What happened to elimination, the aim Johnson declared on 20 March? The explanation is there in the 20 March statement:

We are going to do it with testing. We are going to do it with new medicines, and with new digital technology that will help us to see the disease as it is transmitted, and thereby, by eliminating it, to stamp it out.

These were the things that were going to ‘turn the tide’ against coronavirus within three months. To ‘send the coronavirus packing’ within twelve weeks. We now know that the testing system is not fit for purpose. In England, there isn’t an effective test, trace and protect strategy as we have in other nations of the UK. Until recently, national testing results weren’t even being shared with local government. As for the new digital technology, Hancock’s half-baked app didn’t make it out of beta.

We know that Johnson never wanted to go into lockdown. He said on 3 February in Greenwich that such an idea was ‘bizarre autarkic rhetoric’. 

Forced to go into lockdown when it looked like he might preside over half a million deaths, he made great claims about eliminating the virus but never had any strategy that could deliver that elimination. And now he has had to ‘squeeze that brake pedal’ as it’s become apparent that the virus is going nowhere. It’s not a squeezing of the brake pedal. It’s a handbrake turn. 

Johnson brought England out of lockdown without the necessary testing regime to keep the virus at bay, let alone eliminate it. Thankfully, governments in Wales and Scotland have been more cautious – and in Northern Ireland they have the Republic of Ireland’s systems to borrow. 

There is no UK strategy. There is no war aim. There is no plan. Squash the sombrero; whack a mole; operation last gasp; squeeze the brake pedal: these are tactics, not a strategy. What’s next – jerk the steering wheel? Boy racer Boris needs to learn that Bunteresque jolly japes won’t get us out of this crisis.

It’s no wonder that polling shows a lack of confidence about returning to work, school or nursery. Pig out to help out won’t work without public confidence that the Government knows what it is doing. Trust is low, for good reason: no-one knows what the Government’s strategy is. Rely on the Common Sense of the British People? 80% plus want masks to be worn in public. But the PM’s core supporters, the Delingpoles, the Swaynes, the Conservative Party card-shredders, reject that. 

They don’t know what they’re doing. We can be clear about one thing. Elimination was not the point of lockdown. Elimination isn’t now the UK Government’s war aim. If ever it was. There’s no war aim. And no strategy.

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