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What has become of Britain that it cannot get its Covid strategy right?

Taking back control is all very well, but it assumes a Government with the competence and authority to use it

Person wearing a mask walking past a closed shop
Britain has had the worst economic downturn of any country in Europe, with many companies, particularly in retail, pushing ahead with job cuts even before furlough comes to an end Credit: AFP/GETTY

OK, I admit it. I feel sorry for Gavin Williamson, our hapless Education Secretary, and have some sympathy for the difficulty of his position. But the fiasco of last week’s A-level results was a train crash that could be seen coming a mile off.

Cruelly compared to Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, and thrust into a position for which he is plainly unsuited, Mr Williamson is somehow symbolic of everything that has gone wrong in the Government’s Covid response. At one and the same time, this has managed to be confused, contradictory, disproportionate and on the hoof from the start.

But even by the standards of the past six months, last week was quite something, with calamity piled on calamity. We started with some truly shocking labour market data and yet another overhaul of the Government’s repeatedly failed test, track and trace efforts.

Moving on, we were then revealed to have had the worst economic downturn of any country in Europe, and indeed comparable economy anywhere in the world. Somewhere in the middle was a little bit of positive news when a statistical adjustment revealed that the UK had a somewhat lower Covid death rate than previously recorded, albeit still up there at the top of the international league table. But then such was the stink about A-level grades, that someone seems to have thought it a good day to bury the further bad news, and announce a whole series of quarantines to add to our sense of imprisonment.

Apparently the determining threshold, revealed out of the blue along with the French quarantine, is an infection rate of 20 per hundred thousand. It might have been nice to have been told that before. Given that the infection rate in some areas of the UK is higher, shouldn’t we be quarantining those who have been there when they move around the country too?

Some of the local lockdown rules are equally barmy. If you live in Bradford, for instance, you are not allowed to have people round to your home, or visit people outside the area at their homes, but seemingly you are allowed to go to the pub outside the affected area and socialise freely within distancing rules. You can also go the pub within your area provided you don’t interact with those outside your bubble. This makes no sense.

Williamson was no doubt let down by his officials, and the policy they constructed for him, but the buck stops at the top; the exam grade shambles was easily foreseeable and ultimately down to him and the rest of the Cabinet. The truth is that schools should never have been closed in the first place, which by the way would also have made it much easier for parents to return to work. In any case, pupils should have sat exams.

These judgments are perhaps all very well with the benefit of hindsight, but as with much else to do with Covid, other countries seem to have handled things a good sight better.

In Germany, after some debate among the country’s 16 regions, exams went ahead regardless. Even in countries which did cancel exams, such as the Netherlands, the process of awarding marks – which in Holland’s case was on the basis of course work and prior tests that pupils were allowed to retake if they wanted – passed without any of the same controversy that has plagued the UK.

There was plenty of time to plan for this, but yet again we seem to have got it wrong, the biggest unfairness of the lot being that well performing schools – many of them private – had predicted grades broadly supported, but many poorly performing state schools were marked down.

Of late, I’ve been more positive than most about prospects for the UK economy, taking the view that a relatively strong, V-shaped recovery is still eminently possible. Sorry to say that this somewhat Pollyannaish view is not supported by the Government’s persistent wrong-footedness.

I’m not one of those who think we should simply have let the virus rip, but having seemingly adopted that view initially, the Government then belatedly changed its mind, and has been all over the place ever since. A more targeted approach, supported by robust test and trace, was plainly the way to go, but it has eluded us from the start. The curiosity of all this is that the perceived risk from the virus was understandably high at the start, when we didn’t know a lot about it.

We now understand it better, and have got much better at treating it. The risk is correspondingly much lower, yet we are still approaching the problem as if it was still high. It’s all the wrong way around. These failings are not just down to the apparatus of the state, but to political leadership.

Blanket lockdown measures have mercifully been lifted, but we’ve ended up instead with a continued zero risk policy that the Prime Minister has characterised as “whack-a-mole”. This is actually a more apt description than he might care to admit, because the game of whack-a-mole consists of ineffectively trying to annihilate a harmless irritant that then pops up somewhere else – much unnecessary exertion for only the occasional success.

The new quarantine rules seem to epitomise that approach. The French infection rate is admittedly nearly double our own, if you can believe either figure, but in both cases the numbers are so low as to be of only marginal significance.

Again, it makes little sense. Just as the airline and tourist industries were beginning to show signs of life, they are grounded again. It scarcely needs saying that if this carries on, there will be no airline industry to revive. There is only so long that firms can be kept in a coma before the vital organs begin to fail.

Many have decided not to wait until the end of furlough, and are pushing ahead with sweeping redundancy programmes regardless. The downsizing goes way beyond retail and those directly impacted by the crackdown on social interaction. Virtually every sector bar e-commerce is at it, threatening a vicious circle of beggar thy neighbour job cuts as companies collectively seek competitive advantage.

Looming into view amid the carnage comes one Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, still apparently obsessed with the “disgrace” of Britain’s trade deficit in cheese. Determined to prove that an imminent trade deal with Japan is not just a carbon copy of the EU’s existing trade deal with Japan, but carries a Brexit dividend, she’s insisting on preferential tariffs for stilton cheese. No doubt she’ll get it, but in the process, she’ll likely have to concede something else rather larger. As irrelevances go when all around is falling apart, this surely deserves some sort of a medal.

Brexit was meant to be a moment of national rebirth, then along came Covid. Taking back control is all very well, but it assumes a Government with the competence and authority to use it.