It was during the Vietnam war that the euphemism “credibility gap” was coined to describe the Lyndon Johnson administration. The phrase was used instead of saying what everyone thought – that the US government was systematically lying. The president’s team reasoned that to restore “credibility”, the answer was not to stop lying but to improve public relations. Fast forward a few decades and swap London with Washington, and another Johnson government is attempting the same trick.
On Tuesday, the UK recorded 60,916 new positive coronavirus cases and 830 deaths. In England, one in 50 had coronavirus in a week. Boris Johnson’s response was to restart daily Covid updates so that he can push the government’s narrative that this country is in a frantic race between the vaccine and the virus. In short, this will be a contest between injections and infections. This plays to the idea that perceptions matter more than facts.
Rather than admit the many mistakes he has made and seek to correct them, Mr Johnson aims to be “credible” in a time of Covid. He should be accountable. Credibility is not built on a moral foundation of meaning what you say or saying what you mean. This appeals to a prime minister who doesn’t bother defending policies today because there is every chance of a U-turn tomorrow. On Sunday, Mr Johnson said that schools were safe for children and teachers. By Monday, they were so dangerous, he said, that they must be closed. Nor can it be reliably said that Mr Johnson’s argument rests on scientific advice. If this were true, Downing Street would have surely prepared for even stricter measures than those the country endured in March – as its scientific advisers warned were necessary two weeks ago – to control the spread of a new coronavirus variant in England.
The prime minister wants to give the impression that he is up to the job, but the disaster of the past few weeks suggests he is not. Mr Johnson has been warned again and again about the dangers of a winter surge that would stretch the NHS to breaking point unless the virus was prevented from circulating. He could have heeded warnings, including from his own chief medical officer. But Mr Johnson preferred to believe that the public did not need to suffer further lockdowns because the lurking threat of viral spread could be seen off by a “world-beating” mass vaccination programme.
The trouble was that Sars-CoV-2 was following the evolutionary rule book rather than the Downing Street script. By failing to suppress the virus with a working test, trace and isolate system, the United Kingdom tolerated a higher prevalence than was necessary and increased the chances that incubators for novel viral variants could be found. The emergence of a highly transmissible Covid strain is evidence that nature did locate bodies to breed in.
Mr Johnson now wants the public to believe that a mutant virus is the problem rather than a government that bet against its appearance. Yet, it is the prime minister who repeatedly delayed lockdown measures and so made the problem for the country worse. He compounded his error by failing to improve the country’s ability to manage the pandemic during the lockdowns so things were better when they were lifted. Covid has heightened and highlighted inequalities. The affluent have been able to protect their health and livelihood more effectively than the poor. The pathogen has disproportionately affected those burdened by a mixture of illness, age and poverty. Yet the government has not taken the initiative in recognising this by offering adequate help in times of crisis.
The government’s chief medical officer for England has said that this virus is not going away. He’s right. We are going to be living for some time in an acutely changed world, wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. The government should be less bothered with its credibility and more focussed on providing properly funded support to deal with the clinical, psychological, social and economic shock of the pandemic. Modern living environments may incubate more germs, but they also incubate ways to deal with them and their fallout. The government should act on this reality, not political spin.