Lockdown – Reflections at the end of week 25

The Kardashians have been in the news this week with an announcement that the series of Keeping up with the Kardashians which is currently in production will be the last. I have to confess that I have, over the years in which it has been on our screens, never quite understood the extraordinary success of a semi-scripted reality TV series focusing mainly on Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie and a celebrity style family life in the wealthier suburbs of Los Angeles. I have, in the interests of fairness and domestic harmony, watched one full episode. I came out none the wiser as the expensively dressed and painstakingly made up and manicured protagonists ended up having a food fight caused by nothing in particular.

There has been other news, with the greatest immediate impact coming from the announcement of new restrictions on social gatherings which, whilst not surprising, has not been welcome. It has also arrived accompanied by yet more rumours of Cabinet splits over the new restrictions and the further announcement, in the form of Project Moonshot, of yet another magic bullet.

In recent weeks, people have been urged to go to work, use town centre shops and cafes, go to the pub, go out to eat (and here’s a voucher to incentivise you to do so) and use public transport. Children have returned to school, and universities are about to start their academic year. No official discouragement has been offered by government to those who wish to go abroad on holiday, and larger social gatherings have been permitted outdoors. This relaxation of lockdown was driven by a number of factors, including public impatience with stricter lockdown, economic factors, educational need and, I suspect, less pressure on hospitals during the summer than in the winter.

Relaxation of lockdown in this way was bound to bring with it a rise in infection rates, and this was referred to in a number of government announcements at the time of the relaxation and subsequently. In spite of that, the impression given by the government over the last few days is that it had no pre-ordained plan to bring into operation if the rise in infection rates reached a certain level and that the new restrictions and the timing of their introduction have been decided on the hoof.

The other major story this week has been Brexit, and the extraordinary sight of a minister, with the backing of No. 10, confirming in the House of Commons that the government intended putting forward legislation in the full knowledge that it would place the UK in breach of treaty obligations freely entered into within the last 12 months and, in consequence, in breach of international law. Given its role in law making and law enforcement, the government’s lack of regard for the law in this instance has been widely criticised and has resulted in senior resignations. Whilst it is being suggested that we are looking at a negotiating tactic in relation to our current discussions with the EU, it seems naïve to think that it will not only upset the EU to an unconstructive degree but also give pause for thought to every other government in the world with whom the UK is currently attempting to negotiate a trade deal as to how much we can be trusted in those negotiations or in our compliance with any concluded trade deal.

Both Covid and Brexit pose truly difficult questions for government to manage and resolve, and it is bound to be the case that there will be elements of trial and error and readjustments along the way. However, the apparent lack of planning, exacerbated by the failure to let the electorate in on any underlying strategy that there is, combined with the continuing promises of silver bullets and panaceas which have failed  (the tracing app, track and trace, 10m home testing kits and the Prime Minister’s suggestion a few weeks ago that we’ll be back to normal by Christmas) damage credibility and deny individuals and businesses the consistency and stability that they need to understand and plan their own way forward. The impression that I have from speaking with clients is that, with government financial assistance coming to an end, they are planning a future with government inconsistency and unpredictability as a risk factor rather than with a confidence in future government action. Sadly, it is not surprising that the Health Secretary’s references to Project Moonshot in the House of Commons yesterday were met with laughter.

As the Kardashians prepare to leave our screens, it would be awful to think that the gap will be filled by saturation coverage in which our news channels are given the opportunity to present the serious business of government in serious and difficult times as a docu-soap called Kabinet Kaos, but I have a sense that it’s on its way.

In the meantime, enjoy the weekend and the start of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner