Dissecting Boris Johnson’s letter to the British people

The prime minister is writing a letter to every household in the UK to a cost of £6m, at a time when the National Health Service (NHS) is suffering under the strains of Covid19 cases. Jon Bigger analyses the letter.

Johnson: I am writing to you to update you on the steps we are taking to combat coronavirus.

The overall strategy is becoming clearer by the day. The talk of ‘herd immunity’ a couple of weeks back and the initial backlash against that policy led to a significant change. Instead of allowing us all to risk getting the virus at once they realised that the NHS would cope better if infections came in waves. We are currently on the first wave. When the number of deaths start to decrease each day we can expect lockdown restrictions to be eased and we will be encouraged to get back to work and go shopping until the second wave starts. This will carry on until we have herd immunity. This is in contrast to other countries such as South Korea and Germany who have had a mass testing programme which allows them to pinpoint individual cases. In South Korea they then isolate that case and anyone that has come into contact with that individual. In Germany testing is being used to see the large trends and produce public policy accordingly. The problem with herd immunity is that we do not yet know if having the virus and surviving means that you cannot get infected again. It is therefore a very risky strategy threatening all of us, made worse by a lack of testing.

Johnson: In just a few short weeks, everyday life in this country has changed dramatically. We all feel the profound impact of coronavirus not just on ourselves, but on our loved ones and our communities.

Most of us have done what we can in our communities and will continue to do so despite the best efforts of government to prevent us from staying safe. Many of us were watching with horror at the way the UK lagged behind other countries, such as Italy and France, as they took measures to stem the spread of the virus. Indeed, we can look all the way back to January when China was warning countries to ensure they had enough ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment. We remain scared that we may not see some of our loved ones ever again because of the mishandling of the Johnson regime. The idea that this disaster should not be politicised is another dangerous idea. It is political because it is politicians making the decisions.

Johnson: I understand completely the difficulties this disruption has caused to your lives, businesses and jobs. But the action we have taken is absolutely necessary, for one very simple reason.

If too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS will be unable to cope. This will cost lives. We must slow the spread of the disease, and reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment in order to save as many lives as possible.

That is why we are giving one simple instruction – you must stay at home.

Yes, there is no doubt that if the virus were allowed to continue spreading at the rate it was the NHS would fail many of us and the death toll would be higher. However, measures could have been taken many weeks earlier to increase the level of ventilators and asks in the country. At the very least the prime minister could have looked at measures to increase the safety of NHS and other essential workers, who he clapped on the pavement of Downing Street on Thursday night, knowing that he had already caught the virus himself and had already spread it around government. The sight of his advisor Dominic Cummings fleeing from the scene the following day, having developed symptoms was the latest in a series of Dad’s Army style ‘Don’t Panic’ moments at the top of government.

Johnson: You should not meet friends or relatives who do not live in your home. You may only leave your home for very limited purposes, such as buying food and medicine, exercising once a day and seeking medical attention. You can travel to and from work but should work from home if you can.

When you do have to leave your home, you should ensure, wherever possible, that you are two metres apart from anyone outside of your household.
These rules must be observed. So, if people break the rules, the police will issue fines and disperse gatherings.

For weeks the government’s advice has been ambiguous and open to multiple misinterpretations. This has resulted in ever sterner messages as people naturally interpreted the advice in ways that suited them. And so we reach a draconian set of measures where the police can issue fines and we see the police doing batshit crazy things like dying beautiful lakes black to discourage people visiting. Someone didn’t think too hard about how to get buy in from the public. It involves actually convincing people but the British public are notoriously rebellious when it comes to advice from officials. The prime minister perhaps allowed his election victory to make him think he is routinely liked by the public. He should look at the vast majority of people who voted for someone (anyone!) other than him. He should have had a consistent message and not simply a slogan.

Johnson: I know many of you will be deeply worried about the financial impact on you and your family. The government will do whatever it takes to help you make ends meet and put food on the table.
The enclosed leaflet sets out more detail about the support available and the rules you need to follow. You can also find the latest advice at gov.uk/coronavirus

Worried? We’re fucking terrified. Terrified of the virus but even more so knowing that we have a clown in power over us making decisions that will leave us or people we know dead. Most of us will lose out financially and what the prime minister did very quickly was to prop up his mates in big business. It was business first, people second every single time. They may be spending lots of money but this isn’t socialism, it is still neoliberalism. The government is waiting to unleash their next project which will make austerity look soft and fluffy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already hinted at us all paying for this crisis when the time is ‘right’. The prime minister has repeated David Cameron’s line that there is such a thing as society. Cameron tried and failed to launch his ‘Big Society’ on several occasions. It was designed to plug the gap in public services that austerity left behind. This time it will need steroids because the Tories are planning something horrific. We must, in all the hope around a 1945 style moment of the world coming together, remember that it is the Tories in power with a big majority and they will not instigate an Atlee-esque series of welfare measures. They will strip our public services bare and use notions of solidarity to get charities and other organisations to plug the gap while their mates can get back to business as usual ripping off workers and getting stinking rich.

Johnson: From the start, we have sought to put in the right measures at the right time. We will not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do.

This is a lie, unless he means that the start was two weeks ago and even then we can compare what the UK does to what is happening in other countries. Every government around the world is saying that they are following the science. The facts remain though that this outbreak started in December and it was clear by the end of January that it would spread everywhere. The idea that the UK government can be trusted to do the right thing at the right time is just dangerous. Because they took measures too late the chances are they will relax those measures too early. The chances are they will continue to ignore the World Health Organisation in its request that governments ‘test, test, test’. The chances are that they will not use the testing to target isolations among smaller groups of the population and stop the virus. The chances are they will proceed along the path towards herd immunity and continue to put us all at risk. The chances are they will use this disaster ideologically to progress an ultra-neoliberal economic policy that destroys public services and makes us all pay for the crisis.

Looking further back we know that successive governments have taken their eye off the ball with regards to pandemic preparations. The long term warning signs from science have been ignored and this has left the UK at greater risk.

Johnson: It’s important for me to level with you – we know things will get worse before they get better. But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal.

With Johnson in charge things will always get worse before they get better. The mistakes have been partially acknowledged by government but dressed up as a triumph. The creation in London of a 4,000 bed hospital in the space of a week or so is indeed impressive. The fact that it is needed though is chilling and directly follows from the mistakes the government has made. The fact that several more are being considered around the country is terrifying. Using phrases like ‘It’s important for me to level with you’ is a strange use of language. It’s not really normal parlance. It’s management or campaign speech and typical of a prime minister that is only confident if he can turn something into a campaign. This paragraph also smacks of the desperate position he’s got us all into when we consider being told that ‘fewer lives will be lost’ if we follow government rules. Most of us have been well ahead of the rules and despairing at the advice of government.

Johnson: I want to thank everyone who is working flat out to beat the virus, in particular the staff in our fantastic NHS and care sector across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has been truly inspirational to see our doctors, nurses and other carers rise magnificently to the needs of the hour.

Again, a disgusting irony that this clown has spent decades as a major figure in a party that has tried its hardest to run the NHS on a shoestring budget. He has no right to wax lyrical about a health service that is really ours. He has put everyone working in it at risk for weeks without the right protective equipment.

Johnson: Thousands of retired doctors and nurses are returning to the NHS – and hundreds of thousands of citizens are volunteering to help the most vulnerable. It is with that great British spirit that we will beat coronavirus and we will beat it together.

The virus is global, not British. As a species, coontrolling the virus will depend on people working across the arbitrary national borders that conservatives gain sexual excitement from. Blitz spirit doesn’t really help and is a bit of a myth anyway. Meanwhile, mutual aid is the buzz phrase of the last month. We shouldn’t talk of beating the virus because too many people are going to die to make this seem like a victory and we are not at war. The lives saved and the people helped will likely be helped by others in their local communities. It is mutual aid that is our best hope for getting the shopping done for most of us. We will work together and we don’t need a letter from the prime minister to realise that we have neighbours.

Johnson: That is why, at this moment of national emergency, I urge you, please, to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

He ends with his slogan. It’s a campaign. A campaign that failed early on because people didn’t follow precisely the ambiguous advice he was sending out at his awful daily press conferences. He’s now hired the man who came up with the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ as his chief PR person for the virus. It’s a public relations exercise. That’s all he understands. When we all get to the stage that we know is coming, where we all have family and friends who are dead he will still be conducting a public relations exercise.

We must assume and hope that nobody who has come into contact with Johnson is licking the envelopes for this letter. It is full of bluster, inaccuracies and propaganda. It is typical of a prime minister who started this crisis wanting everyone to fall ill, seemingly as quickly as possible. The sending of the letter is a clear example of just how bad they realise they’ve done so far.

In the weeks to come we can expect some more errors from the government. That doesn’t mean we can’t take the virus seriously, it means that we must take it more seriously than they are, as they spread it around themselves at the same time as saying they’re following the science closely. Johnson got the virus, Matt Hancock go the virus and then it emerged the Chief Medical Officer has symptoms and that the Scottish Secretary also has symptoms. Just last Wednesday he sat between Johnson and Hancock at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. These people are the ones many will be relying on for reliable information and advice.

Jon Bigger