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The government’s mask has slipped as feelings of national solidarity fade into muddled messaging

George Osborne on the failure to keep public confidence

George Osborne
George Osborne / Daniel Hambury
By
13 July 2020
F

or a few fleeting months, the coronavirus appeared to answer the “Kitchener question”: would our generation, when a great crisis came, heed the call in the way previous generations did when they saw General Kitchener’s great finger on the famous poster pointing at them alongside the words “Your Country Needs You”? The answer, to many’s surprise, was yes.

It helped that in 2020 the message was: Your Country Needs You to Stay at Home and Watch Daytime TV. But we did our duty — the roads emptied; and to a far greater degree than any behavioural scientist advising the Government imagined, we complied with the rules. The British nation that last year had seemed so irredeemably split, between remainers and leavers, liberals and nationalists, suddenly came together to do what it was told.

But, oh how quickly that feeling of solidarity has faded. Already, those Thursday evenings when the many emerged blinking into the streets to applaud the courage of the frontline few, feel like they belong to another age. A government attempt to arrange a new round of applause a week ago for the NHS’s birthday was met largely with silence.

Ministerial briefings — that half the country hung on every word of in the spring — are now ignored. Why has the feeling of national solidarity evaporated so quickly? Why has the British government failed to sustain the high levels of public confidence that most European governments continue to command? After all, the virus remains among us, with no imminent prospect of a vaccine; and the huge economic costs in lost jobs, squeezed incomes and high deficits still largely await in the future.

The answer lies in part in performance. Whichever way you cut the figures, Britain has not done as well as most in preventing deaths.

The many detractors of Boris Johnson are furious that this isn’t widely acknowledged — they think he is literally getting away with murder. But in fact all the polling shows that the public knows full well Britain is at the bottom of the league. They blame Johnson, as his fallen personal ratings show; but they also make the perfectly correct judgment that not all the blame can be laid at his door. They note that the advice of scientists has been contradictory; while the new opposition leader impresses them, they didn’t hear Sir Keir present an alternative plan; and they applauded the generous economic response — although they know, whatever Johnson says, they will have to fork out for it in due course.

Now they aren’t paying much attention anymore to what the Government is saying. It started with that eye test in Barnard Castle, and the slide hasn’t been halted.

I challenge you to find two members of the public who agree on what the rules now are on what’s permitted and what isn’t. Support bubbles while beaches are crowded, flights full but theatres empty, go to the office but work from home if you can — ministers say “use your common sense”, but when you do there doesn’t seem to be any. People have moved on since the high days of lockdown, when everyone knew what was expected of them — and no one asked questions. Now they want answers.

I challenge you to find two members of the public who agree on what the rules are now on what’s permitted

Take the issue of the compulsory wearing of masks in public. It should be straightforward. Everywhere in the world people are wearing them to stop the spread of the virus. Even in the US, where masks have become a political weapon between Trump and the Democrats, three fifths of people are wearing them; in Italy, four in five do. In Britain only a quarter of us regularly don masks in public. That’s not because we’re more stupid or more libertarian. On the contrary, we were all paying attention and doing what we were told — by ministers and scientific advisers, who said in March that wearing a mask made no difference.

Four months later we’re being told that we should wear a mask. But there’s been no attempt to explain why the instructions have changed. No minister or scientist has had the courtesy to say “we got that one wrong”. Even now, in the images we’ve seen this last week of our politicians, of all parties, serving up Wagamamas, getting their hair cut, they haven’t been wearing masks. “So why should we?” people ask.

The Prime Minister was only seen in one for the first time on Friday. What most of us are thinking is: if it was serious, they’d make it a rule. Now that’s exactly what the Opposition is belatedly demanding; it’s what the Scottish First Minister will almost certainly require, as part of her strategy to use prudence as a weapon in independence; and it’s where we’ll probably end up in England. But the public need to hear a proper explanation.

Pointing the finger and telling us “your country needs you to” doesn’t work anymore. The Kitchener moment has passed.