2020 is almost over. Good riddance. The gradual rollout of a vaccine in the UK is genuinely remarkable: Rupert Beale, in the London Review of Books, recently described the development of Covid-19 vaccines as ‘a quite astonishing achievement, among the greatest things that we – by which I mean both humanity in general and molecular biologists in particular – have ever accomplished.’
Whilst there are difficult months ahead, we are at the stage now where science has, to be blunt, saved us, auguring an eventual return to something approaching normality. The recent footage of a British prime minister arriving at the European Commission for frenzied last-minute Brexit discussions could even conjure up feelings of unbroken continuity with the time before Covid.
Amidst this, however, some of the events of recent weeks have also offered up examples of a more malign development, representing a compressed, kaleidoscopic concentration – and subsequent deepening – of the trends and tendencies underpinning the deeply unhealthy state of the UK which has been so starkly exposed this year.
Much of the media, for example, has hardly covered itself in glory over the last twelve months. From the breathless reporting last year of an apparent left-wing attack on Matt Hancock’s adviser – which, as video footage later confirmed, did not happen – to the often supine coverage of a demonstrably disastrous government during this crisis, it is perhaps unsurprising that trust in the media has collapsed in the UK, particularly amongst those on the left.
This appears not to have led to much introspection within the profession, however, if some of the awards dished out at this week’s Press Gazette’s annual awards ceremony are anything to go by. The Daily Mail, a surprising choice to say the least, was presented with the inaugural ‘Public Service Award’. This is the paper, lest it be forgotten, that has seldom missed an opportunity to attack workers fighting for their rights – including doctors and nurses.
This is the paper which, in early March, when the UK government was almost alone in Europe in refusing to implement a lockdown, told its readers to ‘trust Boris and his boffins‘ at the same time as it privately told its own journalists that official government advice was no longer adequate and ordered them to work from home.
This is the paper which, even in the midst of this pandemic, saw fit to run a hit piece – of a type becoming a common occurrence in the right-wing press – attacking individual NHS workers for stating on Panorama that they did not have enough PPE.
A journalist from the Telegraph, too, was highly commended for ‘leading the team’ that revealed government scientist Neil Ferguson had broken lockdown rules. Those with long memories may recall that the paper appeared to sit on this story – certainly, it was published months after Ferguson’s transgression – until it could be released at what looked to all intents and purposes like a politically opportune moment for the right.
Indeed, the Telegraph ultimately ran the story on the same day that it emerged the UK had suffered the most deaths in Europe. The BBC, in turn, decided to focus their flagship news podcast on the Telegraph’s scoop rather than the more substantive and tragic milestone achieved by the UK that day.
At this juncture, it’s also worth noting the activities of Tom Newton-Dunn: recent days marked the one-year anniversary of his publication of a far-right conspiracy theory, citing ‘Aryan Unity’ as a source, in the pages of The Sun; he has never apologised, addressed, or even acknowledged the incident. Deserved praise should be given to Jonn Elledge of the New Statesman and Adam Smith of the Independent – two of the very few journalists who broke what does, increasingly, feel like an impenetrable omerta in the trade in even recognising what took place.
Finally, and perhaps most brazenly of all, the government announced this week that ‘high value’ business travellers will be exempt from all self-isolation and quarantine restrictions. There are important moral, ethical, and epidemiological debates about the trade-offs and balance between mobility and controlling virus prevalence – Daniel Howdon, a health economist at the University of Leeds, has been one of the most astute commentators on this topic through the pandemic.
At the moment, the UK doesn’t even offer tests at airports: private, paid-for tests are being introduced on 15 December. What is eminently clear, therefore, is that the government approach – no restrictions if you’re rich enough, coupled, in the same week, to venal attempts to deport as many people as possible before Brexit – is one driven by class interest and cruelty rather than an even notional nod to epidemiology.
Without being overtly redundant, it’s hard not to parse all of this together as the embodiment of an increasingly brazen ‘fuck you – we can do what we want’ approach from the government and its outriders. None of this – either alone or in aggregate – should particularly surprise us. We know that much of the output of the British press represents a cesspit of venality, cruelty, and xenophobia, bestowed with an entirely undeserved veneer of respectability.
We know, too, that the British government has no qualms about deporting people during a pandemic – or, for that matter, in normal times – whilst it exempts grouse-shooting from restrictions; no issues with implementing punitive and labyrinthine immigration legislation at the same time as it welcomes with open arms assorted oligarchs and despots flush with liquid capital.
Yet there is something so brazen in all of this – particularly when considered as a whole – that it does feel increasingly as if a Rubicon has been crossed. Sometimes one needs the luxury of distance just to fully ascertain quite how much of an outlier the UK has become.
In Denmark, where I am writing this piece, a local lockdown was announced on Wednesday. By Thursday lunchtime, the full furlough scheme from March had been reintroduced. This has since been followed by the reintroduction of a package across the entirety of the country supporting businesses with their fixed costs.
No attempts to bully and humiliate local leaders, no leaks to journalists, no idiotic game-playing or economically illiterate and epidemiologically counterproductive attempts to implement lockdowns on the cheap. Flagging up comparisons such as this – mundane, but nevertheless informative – should be within the gift of the Labour Party; even one – as it never tires of noting – which is under new leadership.
Depressingly, however, Labour appears to have instead adopted the role – as Tom Blackburn so eloquently put it for this magazine – of ‘Capital’s B-Team‘. ‘National security,’ the party stated this week, ‘should be our top priority.’ This is risible stuff: the greatest existential threat to the people of the UK is climate change; the political group most likely to inflict suffering on someone living in the UK is the Conservative Party.
A Labour Party unwilling to state this unequivocally may yet win power, but one desperately hopes there remain those within the higher echelons of the party who at least have an awareness – even if it remains unuttered – of just how deeply dysfunctional the UK has become.