Britain: As COVID-19 deaths mount, why is Boris Johnson still popular?

April 21, 2020
Graphic: DonkeyHotey/Flickr

I have been in lockdown for five weeks. Both my employers realised that the game was up a week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and moved all my teaching online.

I don’t find it so bad, as a writer, I thrive on social isolation. I live deep in the countryside, so it isn’t so difficult to ignore people. With idyllic weather, a hundred bottles of home-brew beer and lots of great stuff growing in the garden, it would be easy for me to forget the crisis.

However, Britain is suffering. Three people I have some kind of connection with have recently died. Carole Chant, the musician and revolutionary, died with the virus back in March. We lost Ted Knight, affectionately known as “Red Ted”, later. The former far-left leader of Lambeth council had been full of activism when I saw him last, focussing on climate change work. Finally, the partner of one my local council colleagues died this month.

Death is touching all of us here in Britain. The virus is having a brutal effect, in recent days running at nearly a thousand fatalities a day.

Two of the people I mentioned as fatalities were not victims, directly, of the coronavirus. However, the coronavirus is killing more than the infected. The National Health Service (NHS) is stretched, so the fear is that those with health problems who might otherwise pull through might not get the help they need.

The coronavirus, as we know, is a global pandemic. However, it is hitting some countries far more brutally than others.

Johnson's failed response

Along with austerity and Brexit, it will be another milestone in the story historians will tell of the decline of Britain. Perhaps one question which will fascinate historians is why, with deaths mounting, Johnson has become so popular with the British people.

Some predict that we will have the worst death rate in the world, as a percentage of population. While Western Europe is one part of the world which is being hit particularly badly, the disaster is, at least, partly of Johnson’s making.

Originally, he advocated a herd infection strategy, whereby 60% of the population would be infected, building up collective immunity and halting the virus.

With his usual nonchalance, failing to take care, he shook hands with all he met, until he caught the virus himself. When it was revealed that the herd strategy would lead to thousands of deaths and overwhelm the NHS, he belatedly introduced lockdown.

However, Britain lacks enough equipment to treat all those who need hospital care for the virus, so doctors and nurses are forced to make grim choices: if you are over 70 years of age and you need medical care for coronavirus symptoms, you are less likely to receive intensive care treatment.

It has been challenging to get protective gear, such as masks, to health professionals, and there have been an increasing number of deaths amongst doctors and nurses.

The choice between lockdown, which helps limit the virus, and relaxing this to maintain the economy is impossible at present in Britain. This is because there is so little testing here.

In countries like China or Taiwan, after the outbreak had peaked and declined, infected populations can be tracked, but Britain lacks the capacity to do likewise. Until there is a vaccine, or Johnson can get his act together to test and track the population, any lifting of the lockdown will result in a massacre.

However, Johnson is popular. Opinion polls give his Conservative Party around 50%, while the Labour opposition languishes on about 29%.

Why so? Sympathy for Johnson is one reason; he did spend time in intensive care. Another is the fact that in most countries, populations view this situation as a war, consequently government loyalty becomes stronger and leaders gain in the polls.

The British media play their part, and with the honourable exception of Piers Morgan, have been largely uncritical of our government. To criticise the government is vaguely presented as a form of treachery at a time of national emergency.

I guess, at least, the government led by Johnson, better known for comedy value rather competency, is maintaining lockdown. Compared to the idiocies of United States President Donald Trump, Britain is in relatively safe hands.

Labour crisis

Another reason for Johnson’s popularity and perhaps one of the reasons the Conservatives under Boris are thriving may be the remarkable news that broke about the Labour Party.

I say “broke”, but the mainstream media have been virtually silent about the astonishing story that a significant number of Labour Party staff did everything they could to sabotage a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour at previous General Elections.

While they would no doubt reject the idea that they were working to aid the Conservative Party to win successive General Elections, this is effectively what they did.

Newly elected Labour leader Keir Starmer faces an immediate crisis. Winning on a set of left-wing policies, including a Green New Deal and opposition to austerity, he was the cherished candidate of the Labour right.

It will be fascinating to see how this contradiction will play out, though the revelations about Labour staff are an immediate problem for him.

Corbyn failed to win both the 2017 and 2019 General Elections as Labour’s previous left-wing leader. Accusations that Labour was institutionally anti-Semitic dogged him. The British press, including the supposedly left-leaning Guardian, attacked him on a daily basis.

An 800-page dossier on anti-Semitism was somewhat mysteriously halted from going to investigators. It was then leaked. It revealed a culture of racism and abuse amongst some staff.

Evidence that staff were actively working to stop Labour winning the 2017 General Election is clear. Shockingly, when Corbyn contacted staff to take action on anti-Semitism, in many cases, they deliberately delayed, contacted the media and used the delays they had created to suggest that Corbyn was failing to take action.

A right-wing network has been in control of much of the party apparatus. Even if Corbyn had failed to be elected Labour leader, they were keen to give the same treatment to another leader unless she or he was firmly on the right of the party.

Ed Miliband, the previous Labour leader, faced challenges because he was perceived to be too radical, as did the current mayor of Manchester, leadership contender Andy Burnham.

It is richly ironic that Starmer, beloved by the right, is the first Labour Party leader to have started his political career as a Marxist.

So, in short, things are not great here in Britain. The failure of much of the media, and internal attacks from within the Labour Party, help explain why we have a government which is largely incompetent, but popular.

Deaths are rising and scrutiny is weak. Wish us luck!

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