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Barba tenus sapientes: Johnson’s Address to the Nation

Important definitions to understand this blog post:

COVID-19: A respiratory disease that causes damage to the lungs and airways system. Symptoms include shortness of breathing, a sore throat, loss of taste and smell, coughing and in some cases rashes. The world is currently in the middle of an outbreak of this disease all across the world.

Pandemic: a disease that spreads around the world and is causing damage to many citizens.

Boris Johnson: member of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The Great Depression: a period in the 1930s where economies around the world crashed, leaving millions in people in poverty and unemployed. It started in the US.

VE Day: marking the event in history when the German Nazis surrendered during World War Two.

Scottish First Minister: head of the government in Scotland and is held accountable to any action it takes. Currently, the Scottish First Minister is Nicola Sturgeon.

infection rate: this is the rate to how an infection is increasing, or decreasing in a population. This is signalled by testing the population for a particular infection.

hospitalisation rate: this is the rate signalling how many people are being admitted to hospital due to a particular infection in a population.

death rate: this is the rate signalling how many people have died due to a particular infection, and whether this is increasing or decreasing in a population.

lassiez faire: a policy adopted by governments, meaning to ‘leave alone.’ In terms of economics, this involves governments leaving the economy alone because ‘businesses know best.’

Neo-liberalism: a strand of political thought that was adopted in the 1970s. Key principles in this political thought are individualism, privatisation of the services, deregulation of the economy and cuts to public spending.

Privatisation: services move from public to private hands, meaning that they are owned by private s. businesses and not the general public paid for through their taxes. For example, Margret Thatcher while she was Prime Minister privatised British Telecom, British Aerospace and British Airways.

Nationalisation: putting services back into public hands and away from private businesses. Eg: The National Health Service, the NHS, is an example of a nationalised service because it is owned by the public and paid for through their taxes.

Matt Hancock: currently the Health Secretary. This means that they are in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care department of government, and they are responsible for the National Health Service in the UK. This means that Hancock is responsible for making sure that all NHS hospitals and the emergency services (police, ambulance, fire service) are functioning properly and have the correct equipment.

PPE: personal protective equipment. This is particularly useful to protect workers on the front line, such as manual workers and NHS healthcare workers so they are protected from catching infections. Examples are masks, visors and goggles.

Introduction:

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for weeks now. Possibly even months. I’ve wanted to write about COVID-19 and the UK government’s dealing with it. The sensitivity of the subject however has stopped me every time in my tracks. This isn’t analysing seats in Parliament, this isn’t analysing party tactics (to an extent). This is analysing government strategies to a global pandemic, how it unprepared and how every approach has caused lives to be lost, most likely more than there ever should been if the UK government had taken the right cause of action, and if it was committed quickly. COVID-19 is not a war as such: there has been no disagreement, there was no build up (so to speak), there were no peace negotiations attempted or treaties. Instead, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that is wrecking havoc with little warning to the ordinary population, putting many into self isolation with some in a sense of confusion, petrified at every breaking news story everyday. Others into hospital units and sadly never leaving them. To many, this was a shock that little saw coming. Some did though, including the UK government (although that will addressed in a later COVID-19 post.)

Personally, I’ve been following COVID-19 since late January through The Guardian, mostly fuelled by fear. I guessed that it would have been inevitable that an outbreak would eventually hit the UK, but I never anticipated this scale. How can you possibly picture near enough every social structure being put on hold? How can you possibly ever imagine the horrifying death toll, which at the time of writing stands at 31,500? As the news refreshed and refreshed on The Guardian’s website, rolling out more devastating headlines and news stories about this virus, it got more and more terrifying. It was hard to go about your everyday life, and then all of a sudden there wasn’t an everyday life anymore.

Recently, in these self isolated times (I hate the word unprecedented) I’ve been investing myself in different things, learning new things, reading. Without fail though, everyday I’ll participate in some what of a ‘Two Minutes Hate.’ The Two Minutes Hate is a concept from Nineteen Eighty Four, a dystopian novel written by George Orwell, where the characters engage in ‘hate’ towards a particular figure who is portrayed as the ultimate evil, having the wrong opinions which would harm all life if they were actually put into practice and it is only ‘Big Brother’ in the character’s world that keeps them safe. People in the novel shout and scream at the figure who is saying these ideas having been trained to find them the ultimate evil. I am not in the same circumstance, but I engage in the same act. Everyday (to my poor parents) I go on rampaging rants about how the government has failed to help protect the people, how it’s a national disgrace, how the lack of personal protection equipment is horrifying, and so on and so on. Tonight however, I’ve realised that it is not enough. I am going to write blog posts about COVID-19 and the strategy that the UK government have undertaken, and try and spread my message to anyone that I can. This will be a series of blog posts as there are so many subjects that it would be impossible for my message to be condensed into one entry. I will try and lay the facts open for anyone, I will give my opinion, I will say what is being shied away from.

Perhaps I am delusional. But if I can change one person’s perspective, if I can open the eyes to someone concerning how disgracefully the government have acted, I will feel satisfied. As I said at the start of this introduction, this is not the case of Brexit parliamentary antics or voting statistics, this is the case of safety, viruses, and life and death. I want to show and keep people fully informed about this crisis, and above all educated, in the most accessible way possible so anyone could possibly start reading this blog post and understand. Today, this blog post will largely be on the messages set out by Boris Johnson concerning his address to the nation speech on the 10th May, 2020. I personally, today and over the next few weeks, would love if you gave them a read.

Main body:

Background on Boris Johnson’s speech:

After over six weeks of lockdown, Johnson planned to address the nation live on TV. This was after the VE celebrations on the just past bank holiday, which led to some people celebrating in the comfort of their homes but also some people intermingling with different households, sharing food and doing congas in their road to celebrate 75 years of Nazi surrender. There was anticipation for this speech. In the midst of these celebrations, the media reported of ‘liberation from the suffering of World War Two’ while intentionally saying that ‘next Monday would be another liberation day’ with ‘the road out of lockdown’ being announced in Johnson’s address to the nation Sunday night, broadcast live on BBC One. The day before VE Day, the Daily Mail splashed ‘hurrah! lockdown freedom beckons’ on their front pages. ‘Stay home slogan… scrapped’ they wrote. ‘Happy Monday!’ said The Sun. ‘Lockdown joy next week.’ ‘Pubs, cafes plan to open gardens.’ Suddenly, as the British people waved their flags and snacked on scones, there was an air for many people that this ‘grounding’ would finally be over.

Before Johnson had even uttered a word in his speech, mistakes were already being made. The fact that the press knew that the ‘stay home’ slogan that many of us have come to know would be scrapped is a signal that the government leaked this piece of information to some newspapers. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, did not know herself that this would be scrapped, and found out through these newspapers reporting the headlines. Essentially the boss of Scotland did not know what direction the United Kingdom as a whole would take until she looked at the newspapers, as the UK government had not cared to inform her. By leaking these details to the press, it also gave the people a sense of hope- dangerous hope. Lockdown would be lifted on Sunday and everything would be okay again. Cue some people celebrating VE Day by doing the conga with their neighbours- possibly spreading the virus to more vulnerable people as they munched on Victory Cake and scones.

Despite this being behaviour that should not happen during a global pandemic, I do not believe that the blame lies with them. The blame lies with this government for leaking this information, giving the press the fuel to the fire and giving people a sense of hope where it really, really should not have been lighted. It is important to keep in mind though that these people are a minority, as many watched on in fear of how others were acting in their celebrations, possibly spreading more infection to the more vulnerable in society.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Remember Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister, saying he wanted to ‘squash the sombrero?’ If you don’t, that’s what he said in his first few daily press conferences, referencing the coronavirus ‘curve’ in all the graphs we see on TV that yes, if you squint your eyes, do vaguely look like the Mexican hats. What Johnson meant by ‘squashing the sombrero’ is putting a lockdown into place so the increase of new cases, new hospitalisations and new deaths are slower and not all at once, meaning that the NHS and hospitals around the country will not get too busy, too busy meaning that they cannot take in any more patients. Thus, Johnson claimed that the sombrero must be ‘squashed’ not to ‘overwhelm’ the NHS so every patient can be treated.


Despite the seriousness of the situation in March, when there were more and more cases and moralities everyday, Johnson seems to always take this sort of tone in his conferences. Concerned, but basically not afraid to say random phrases and comparisons that come to his head. It conformed to what many know as ‘bumbling Boris’ in which he acts as a bit of an idiot with a mop of blonde hair. The zipwiring, flag waving, tennis playing, bumbling Boris who was seen to many for a long time as a joker, but has somehow landed himself in one of the most important positions in the country in a national crisis.

In his recent address to the nation, the previous joking tone had gone. Even the tone when he announced that the UK was going into lockdown over six weeks ago was different to the tone that was adopted by him in this speech. It was more serious. It was more urgent. There were no more jokes, no more comparisons to hats. Despite telling people to go back to work, indeed a relaxation of the restrictions that are in place, he adopted a nervous, anxious if you like, urgency. Whether this is because of the death rate, or his own experience having COVID-19, we don’t know. It certainly looked however like a man who knew. A man who knew that there had been so many causalities in this country, with the country having the highest death toll in Europe largely due to the decisions that his government had taken in the last months. He knew that this speech would be criticised, he knew that most of the public were turning against him and his measures, frightened for themselves, their loved ones and their futures. There was table thumping with his hands. There was multiple tone raises and near enough shouting into the camera. “Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland. There is a strong resolve to defeat this coronavirus together” punched Johnson in a desperate attempt for unity, despite his government leaked slogans to the press the day before. When It was like watching a man who knew he was guilty of an offence in Court desperately trying to defend himself with one last plea.

Analysis: what did Boris Johnson actually lay out from 11th May 2020?

Good question. A difficult question as well to be honest, although it really shouldn’t be. Nearly 24 hours on, there is still utter confusion as to what Boris Johnson laid out. In the most brief sense, Johnson tried to set out a five setting system to determine levels of COVID-19 intensity- from green, meaning that there were very little threat from COVID-19 to Red, which was the highest possible intensity and would result in the UK going into draconian lockdown again. There’s also light green, yellow and orange as the levels in between red and dark green which are meant to represent how intense the COVID-19 disease is in the UK. On top of this, there was the talk of the ‘R’ infection, which was explained very poorly by Johnson but means the percentage of how many individuals an individual with the disease is likely to convict. If this leaves you confused, you’re not alone. Bill Hanage who is a Professor at Harvard University in Epidemiology, meaning the study of controlling diseases and pandemics, noted on Twitter after Johnson proposed this model that he had ‘no idea what this means’ and there ‘helpful and better options are available.’ The comments under the BBC Youtube video for Johnson’s address to the nation felt the same way. ‘Prime Minister can we go outside? Yesn’t’ joked one individual. ‘He sounds like me answering a difficult question at a job interview’ with another saying ‘body language all wrong.’ It seems that the government drew their plans directly from the Nando’s model of telling you how spicy their food is with the chilli.

Johnson also established the ‘three phases’ which we will all be hearing a lot more about over the coming weeks and months. We are now apparently out of ‘Phase One’ where COVID-19 was so intense with the infection and death rates that the only option was the lockdown of the entire country. I say ‘apparently’ we’re out of Phase One as Johnson is taking these steps when the infection and death rates, although declining, are still high. The country went into lockdown when there were around eighty recorded deaths a day in the UK, and restrictions are being eased when there is still a lot more than that everyday. Even on weekends, when the death rate is notorious for being lower, the numbers are still four times higher daily compared to when the UK first went into lockdown. It is completely wrong that we are suddenly moving into Phase Two when the government has not allowed for the death rates to decline to the levels that they were below lockdown, which would have taken at least three more weeks in the lockdown that in the UK most of us have become accustomed to. Johnson says that now we need to move on from this, moving into ‘Phase Two’ of the UK’s ‘roadmap’ out of the pandemic shutdown, which is to sending people back to work and re-opening businesses.

Phase 3 will involve some hospitalities re-opening, which include hotels, cinemas, non-necessity jobs and pubs to name a few. To anyone, this may sound like there is little harm involved. The economy needs to keep going, right? The only way to stop economy disaster in this country is to get some people back to work. Right? Well, in my humble opinion, it is completely wrong. It is exploitation of the lowest classes who the government are using like pawns in a chess match, who are being treated like capitalist cattle. In the next section of this post, I will explain just why this is wrong and how the government are risking those with manual jobs, those who may live in poverty.

Okay, so that’s the general, confused, idea of the roadmap. Doesn’t really feel like we’re on a road, more like we’re driving on vague lines on a beach, but okay. But what has Boris Johnson laid out concerning my work, my family’s work and general workplace practice?

“We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must. We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction and manufacturing should now actively be encouraged to go back to work…/ so you should avoid public transport.” – Johnson’s address to the nation.

The new order from the UK government, which is now being advertised on news channels, is that you should still ‘work from home when you can’ but if you can’t, you must go back to work. Clearly, this already leaves two grey areas. It does not include key workers, from postmen/postwomen to NHS workers and carers to some factory workers, who have been working all the time anyway, and it does not include the hospitality industry such as non-necessity shops, cinema workers and so on who cannot work as their place of work is well, closed.

Those with office jobs, those who run a business, and so on can keep working from home, as their work does not require for them to be in a collective environment. They can use the Zoom as a video conferencing application, still meet up with each other (albeit in front of many different meme backgrounds) and get their work done from their comfort of their home on their laptop. Of course, *common sense* (which seems to be the new favourite Tory slogan) tells you that these people with more middle class jobs are protected from this virus as they can meet through the wonders of technology instead of going outside to do their jobs, where they are more likely to catch the virus.

Meanwhile, those who need to be present in a workplace with others to complete their work, such as a security guard, a factory worker, a plumber, a taxi driver and so on, have to go outside. They have to mingle with others in order to complete their jobs, and thus this increases their likelihood of catching the coronavirus. Those who carry out these jobs, stereotypically, are on the lowest incomes and may be living in poverty, plus having other circumstances such as living in a single parent household. This isn’t even taking into account public transport, which many have to travel on in order to get to their work, especially in cities such as London. Many live outside or on the outskirts of big cities because the prices are too expensive, and some do not own a car- meaning that public transport is the only possible way to get work for many. It’s alarming how out of touch the Conservative government seems to be with the real world of work for many.

According to The Office of National Statistics (April 24th 2020), men in a lower occupations of work have the highest death rate from COVID-19, with 21.4 per 100,000 of the population in the time frame of 9th March to 22nd April 2020. It was men working as security guards that had the highest death rate, with 45.7 deaths per 100,000. This is in comparison to the occupation of managers, with 21.6 deaths per 100,000. What the report calls ‘skilled trade occupations’ which includes automative service technicians, rail yard and ship crew’ has 44.6 per 100,000 death rate. Therefore, while the richer, the higher class keep in their safety bunker of a home from this virus, it is the lower classes that are being marched in to work, with twelve hours notice in some instances, by the table thumping orders of their blonde mop haired leader. In all countries around the world, after the pandemic is over or its affects have been greatly reduced, there will be economic struggles. Johnson is trying to prevent harm to the economy, and the easiest people to exploit in this act is the lowest paid who rely on their wages to survive, not for non-neccesities. These workers are not unskilled. They are working to keep the country going in this time. It is horrific that they are being exploited in this way.

Johnson punching the table when he lists these key workers, ‘police, bus drivers, train drivers, pharmacists, supermarket workers…’ and so on was a pathetic attempt to try and show his emphasis and respect for key workers, but his measures he is taking to protect these people show nothing of the sort.

Notice the vagueness in the plans for jobs that he set out in his speech. There was no talk of setting out safety practice in each employment setting, so every employee felt safe if and when they return to work. There was no talk of guidelines that every employer must follow to keep their employees safe, or they will not be allowed to open. There was no talk of providing protective equipment for every employee such as gowns, masks, and goggles for eye protection. There was no talk of any deep clean that every employer must take in their workplace before it is reopened. No, here Boris Johnson was taking the traditional neoliberal approach, characterised by past Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government in the nineteen eighties when it came to dealing with the economy. An important principle in what is called ‘neoliberalism’ is what is called the ‘lassiez faire’ – the government leaves businesses to commit what acts they like, with the knowledge that ‘they know best.’ Although this approach has not been committed to when it comes to wages, instead the government adopting furlough policy meaning that the government pays furloughed workers who are not working directly from the state, it has been applied to health and safety regulation.

In extreme times before The Great Depression of the 1930s, UK governments refused any factory legislation to be passed that limited working hours or the use of children in manual labour, with this same knowledge that businesses knew best with their ‘superior knowledge’ and thus were allowed to adopt these measures for financial gain. We see the same pattern being adopted again. Wages are being paid for by the state on furlough schemes, but health and safety regulation is being left to the responsibility of the employer.

The complete abandonment of health and safety regulation also shifts blame away from the UK government if there is a second wave of the COVID-19 disease where infection, hospitalisation and death rates start rising again. It is the very essence of vagueness that will protect the government in the long run. If more people sadly lose their lives due to this virus in a second wave, which some scientists argue is inevitable, they will be able to defend themselves as it is the employers who had the choice to put regulations in place, it is the employers who should have provided the masks, it is the employers who should have had enough visors and goggles. It may even be the British public who gets the blame eventually, for not avoiding public transport or wearing protective equipment although the use of public transport is essential for some and protective equipment is in heavily short supply. It will be the employer’s fault for any shortage of equipment, for any people they have to make redundant. It will never be the government’s fault: remember that. Even with videos emerging of people cramming themselves on the London Underground to get to their work, clearly not keeping 2 metres apart, it will never be the government’s own fault if more and more people catch COVID-19.

What does this all mean? It means that the UK government are prioritising economy, money making and financial gain over the health and safety of the workers in this country. In a country and indeed a world where meeting family and friends is considered dangerous, it is still fine to come into contact with your boss in a confined workplace to run errands. In a time when the Health Secretary Matt Hancock says people can only see one parent at a time, it is still fine to come in close contact with your work colleagues and the general public, mostly without protective equipment. This is the hypocrisy of the UK government when it comes to health and safety. To quote Sam Coates report on Sky News, the government are quite possibly ‘prioritising economic contact over social contact.’ It’s disastrous.

If you feel unsafe at your workplace if you are returning to work, the law does protect you. Section 44 of the Health and Safety Act (1996) legislation protects any worker from working in an unsafe environment. Not many people actually know this; unfortunately The Labour Party have not vocalised this as of yet. This legislation has the potential to protect exploited workers in these horrific times, as it gives you the option to work away. To do this, you can write to your employee and sending an email to your manager, citing your reasons why. It is important that you cite your reasons and why you cannot carry on in your workplace, and cite your human rights under Section 44 of this Act. For more information on how to cite your rights if you feel like you are working in an unsafe workplace, a thread can be found here -> https://twitter.com/charlottor/status/1259565137494769670?s=20

Another possible option is to join a trade union. Trade unions are institutions that are together to protect and forward workers rights and interests, which is also needed for workers in these times A useful article to learn more about trade unions can be found here -> . Although it will not be voiced by the UK government, who have proposed to take COVID-19 ‘on the chin’ (Boris Johnson, March 2020 on This Morning) these are the ways in which you can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep yourself and your loved ones safe in these difficult times.

So, that’s going back to work. What about the unlimited excerise?

Another policy that Johnson announced on his address to the nation is people can now go on unlimited excerise whenever they like. In theory, and perhaps in the room where the government discussed this policy, it makes sense. People will be able to go out to excerise whenever they like to improve their wellbeing. They can play football, cricket, whatever they like in parks, and if it is sunny they can sunbathe in the sunny sunshine. There are two problems with this measure being introduced. One is the context of the policy being introduced, which is where I must recall back to the earlier contents of this blog post. Some people, although a minority, will stretch their freedoms and start to mingle with others from outside their household, possibly leading to higher infection. They had celebrated liberation’s seventy five year anniversary from the threat of Nazi power and were fully in a celebration mode. They could finally throw a big garden party as lockdown was finally coming to an end! In other words, the country was being offered a nibble at a liberation cake but a minority would eat the whole lot in one sitting, and then demand more. Johnson lay out restrictions on this policy, but the problem with this is he announced the ‘unlimited excerise policy’ before he said that it should be limited to families and one other person from outside the household. In other words, he did it the wrong way round. It being such a groundbreaking policy in the context of the restrictions that were in place before, many people most likely starting talking about what Johnson had just said, not hearing ‘families and one other person’ added on the end. It was like he announced this policy and then was like “oh… by the way” in terms of the restrictions, just as a little extra.

The policy, while no where near as dangerous as the abandonment of health and safety regulation discussed earlier is still dangerous. It risks friends and families meeting up and spreading the virus, some without even knowing, as it is possible one can have COVID-19 but not know for a maximum of fourteen days. The videos of some British people doing the conga among their neighbours a few days prior also most certainly come to mind. We have to hope this minority does not sacrifice this new policy to enjoy exercise with our house families more frequently.

Conclusion:

Monday Morning, the UK woke up to videos of London Underground trains being packed with lots of commuters on their way to work. Although the government had, and continue to say that social distancing must be applied on public transport, anyone who has been on an underground tube knows this is impossible to do during rush hour, plus the workers were only trying to obey the Prime Minister’s instructions. The UK also woke up to controversial journalist Piers Morgan criticising the measures that the government had laid out, saying on the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain that they were ‘disingenuous’ while also criticising government ministers for boycotting the breakfast show by not appearing as guests. The UK population also witnessed a few hours later a surprising outburst from This Morning presenter Philip Schofield, bursting out on live television, saying ‘you made us cross Boris’ on a show that likes to stay away from Politics.

The media reflects the current mood of the population. A big majority of the population also felt the same way, with ‘GET TO THE POINT’ trending on Twitter for hours after the speech, with many trade unions the following day airing their concerns about protection for employees that have been forced back to work under the orders of their leader.

What is important is in these difficult times, we try to stay informed. The confusion surrounding Politics and the measures that the government keep putting out and reporting are making Politics something that we are tending to shy away from more than ever, when the power of information and knowledge is more important than ever. It is needed to be angry at the government, to be angry at their measures and realise how they are dealing with this situation. If you are still reading, thank you very much for reading this blog post. I hope you have enjoyed it, whilst also taking something away from it; my efforts over 4 nights (!) will all be worth it.

Best wishes.

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