Last Saturday was a miserable day across much of the British Isles. Storm Aiden brought buckets of rain, lashing winds and a dark coldness that reminded too many of the long winter months to come. On a night like that, where ducks sought refuge and you’d face cruelty charges for putting a milk bottle out for the next morning’s rounds, the only thing to do was to snuggle up on the couch, turn up the heating and turn on the television.
Sure enough, as happenstance would have it, the new season of Strictly Come Dancing was beginning in earnest on the BBC. It’s a highly popular programme, one that sees a range of public, sporting and pop personalities teamed up with a professional dance partner. One of the dozen teams that start off are eliminated each week, and the teams have to rumba, salsa and jive their way to success. Viewers vote, and the winner is revealed in the week before Christmas.
Even the start of the new season was sideswiped by a much-delayed press conference and national broadcast from 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to unveil plans for putting England back into a four-week national lockdown come 12:01am on November 5. A damp squall outside, a damp squib on the telly. It was the worst kept secret of the day, with the details of the lockdown appearing in the Saturday morning papers — a full 12 hours before Johnson popped up on screens to deliver the bad news.
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He simply can’t catch a break — partly because for weeks he’d insisted on a regional approach to shutting down parts of England as coronavirus cases soared to well past 400 for 100,000 people in Manchester, Liverpool and a vast swathe of northern England from the Mersey to the Tyne and up to the border with Scotland. And partly too because he was advised by his scientific advisers to shut England down again as early as September 21 — a full six weeks of wasted opportunity before he finally did indeed take a decision for Lockdown 2.0.
The scientists said that if the lockdown period included part of the schools’ half-term holidays, a two-week total lockdown might be enough. Boris, of course, if never one for full measures when he might be able to get away with some other convoluted idea instead — maybe it’s his own personal version of original thinking — and decided to go for a four-week lockdown instead, but keeping schools and universities open in some sort of vast uncontrolled Petri dish experiment
Economic hibernation and shut down
The ironic thing is that governments across the rest of the British Isles, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland too, had already taken the decision weeks before to re-enter economic hibernation and shut down.
Now, just as England enters its latest lockdown, Wales will be emerging from a three-week lockdown which meant that basically everything closed and stores were only allowed to sell essential goods only. Of course, part of the issue in Wales has been a great debate as to what qualified as essential — plenty to ponder on Pontypool and Prestatyn when you’re in strict social distancing protocols.
For weeks too Northern Ireland has been under lockdown, with the devolved government there taking decisive action when cases soared in Derry and Strabane in particular. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also detailed a five-level status — with only the 2 million or so who live in the central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh in Tier 3, with most of the north and outlying islands in Tier 1. Nowhere had been put in Tier 5.
But Boris spent three weeks coming up with his three-tier plan, then another three weeks haggling with local leaders over funding to try and subsidise the lowest-paid workers who were due to earn two-thirds of minimum wage. Try paying rent and feeding yourself on £6 (Dh24) an hour in England never mind keeping warm when the likes of Storm Aiden comes howling through for a wet weekend.
National furlough scheme
But what is absolutely galling to all three devolved leaders in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, as well as in the councils that have been beaten up and bruised by weeks of haggling over pennies with the Johnson government, is that as soon as it appeared that cases in London were on the rise, there was yet another of a long series of sharp U-turns by Boris. The national furlough scheme, which those regional leaders had been begging for weeks to be extended — it was supposed to run out just as Johnson was addressing the nation last Saturday — has now been extended until the end of Lockdown 2.0. Yet another example, they say, of how London and the south is treated with kid gloves compared to everywhere else.
The prime minister was at pains to say the reason this was being done was to ensure families might be able to get together for Christmas in limited ways. But as soon as the Sunday morning talk shows came around, senior Conservative minister Michael Gove lets the cat out of the bag that Lockdown 2.0 might be extended well beyond its December 2 reopening date. That won’t happen, Johnson says. But now, after 15 separate policy reversals, U-turns and abrupt change of plans since March, few think he has any political capital left to be spent in the trust column.
The lockdown, Johnson assured the people of England, would also allow the government to implement his touted track-and-trace scheme. On Tuesday, the scientists advising the government said the whole scheme was a mess and would be better off being run by the regional leaders at a local level. Soon enough, there’ll be a hard border in name running between England and Wales and England and Scotland — a no-deal Brexit anyone? — to keep the English out, when the devolved regions are coming out of lockdown.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.