Tom Rachman is a Canadian/British author who lives in London. His new novel, set amid COVID lockdowns, comes out next year.
When this began – back when surgical masks were still just for surgeons, when “lockdown” only evoked prison, when millions dead in a pandemic sounded like something out of Hollywood, not the real world – right from the start, we pictured the ending. How we’d meet “on the other side.” That we’d become ourselves again “when things return to normal.”
England – a country far from normal – is rushing to claim normality restored, regardless of what the virus thinks. Hospital wards will soon deliver the disease’s reply. But for now, it’s an end to mandatory masking, back to cramped offices, anyone welcome on the pullulating dance floor, whether vaxxed or not. Soon, COVID patients might not even have to quarantine, restoring to the English their ancient liberty to cough and spew respiratory illness on the bus.
Living in Britain today is to be subjected to a man with the hair of a mad scientist and the experiments of a mad egotist. Boris Johnson’s focus is always at the wrong end of the microscope: not that molecule with spikes, but that posh boy bulging in reflection. Facing a scandal that could drive him from office, the prime minister proclaimed an end to nearly all coronavirus restrictions. Regarding COVID, he boasted last week, “this government got the big things right.”
History won’t agree. In March, 2020, when coronavirus tore through the unprotected population, experts pleaded for urgent measures. Mr. Johnson resisted, wanting to remain the chortling chap popping Pol Roger to cheers of “Hurrah!” – never the serious voice urging all to stop guzzling and hasten home. His dithering cost thousands of lives.
So far, Britain has recorded 16 million COVID-19 cases, with more than 155,000 dead. Amazingly, this has never threatened Mr. Johnson’s rule. He teeters only because of revelations that – amid the hiss of ventilators and the distress of an isolated public – his government partied.
So many booze-ups took place at Downing Street in violation of physical-distancing rules that it’s hard to keep track. Staff even held regular “Wine-Time Fridays,” buying a 34-bottle drinks fridge, and trundling wheeled luggage to a nearby Tesco minimarket for more liquor.
Besides the hypocrisy, you wonder about their sobriety. Friday drinking sessions kicked off at 4 p.m., some lasting till midnight, with dancing, music on laptop speakers, tipsy games of Pictionary. Someone broke the swing of Mr. Johnson’s youngest son, Wilf. While Downing Street was downing red wine, lesser people (not least the Queen, mourning her husband) weren’t allowed the comfort of guests around them at a funeral.
Mr. Johnson’s approval ratings have plummeted, with the long-floundering Labour Party moving ahead. This has stirred rebellion among Tory MPs, with some seeking a no-confidence vote to replace their leader.
The Prime Minister responded by launching “Operation Save Big Dog” (yes, this is apparently what he calls it). An equally ridiculous sub-manoeuvre is “Operation Red Meat,” to placate his right-wing base. Among the floated “Red Meat” policies were the use of Royal Navy ships to stop migrants crossing the Channel; and decimating the BBC, long reviled by the conservative press as a haven of cosmopolitan degenerate lefties.
However, the thickest slab of red meat was the elimination of COVID restrictions, which have long infuriated a powerful faction of Tory libertarians. Why, you might ask, should they despise safeguards for the vulnerable? After all, many such characters are themselves old and vulnerable. But the reflex of the Conservative Party is no longer conservative. It’s mad-eyed recklessness. In this, Brexit has much to answer for.
The delusion that Britain could become mightier in isolation prompted a double break: splitting society in two while separating Brexiteers from reality. Few who campaigned so ardently in defiance of plain truth can accept the damage they caused: a punctured economy, trucks lined up at the border point in Dover, reams of self-inflicted red tape, prices rising, promise squelched.
Self-serving fantasy is their ideology, and Mr. Johnson its perfect avatar, a man who hopes for the best, plans for others to take the worst. “One thing you can say about a man responsible for at least nine pregnancies by at least four different women is that he is prone to wishful thinking,” the novelist John Lanchester commented. “Johnson doesn’t want certain things to be true, so he acts as if they can be ignored.”
Among the facts to ignore? Britain came second-last on a list of 23 rich countries for economic performance during the pandemic. Last week, inflation reached its highest rate in 30 years. During a dozen years of Conservative-led governments, the annual number of people needing food banks has risen from 41,000 to 2.5 million.
But Britain’s problems go beyond Boris Johnson. If a clown appears, you’re probably at a circus.
Rory Stewart was a Tory cabinet member but quit the party in 2019, aghast at a culture that elevated ignoramuses while sidelining the able. British politics lost seriousness, and the Prime Minister merely embodied this decline. “He is not, therefore, an aberration,” Mr. Stewart says, “but a product of a system that will continue to produce terrible politicians long after he is gone.”
It is reasonable to consider stepping back from COVID restrictions. While cases remain high, Omicron has proved milder than feared. So, when to ditch masks? And if we let the disease run free, what of long COVID-19 and new variants?
These pressing questions underscore the damage of political scandal: you can’t tell if policy is about the people or about one person. We ought to consider “when things return to normal.” Only, I don’t know what normal means in Britain any more.
Even keeping warm is harder nowadays, with energy prices set for a vast hike. Reflecting a callousness of the times, one supplier proposed that its customers warm themselves by doing jumping jacks, eating porridge, or “challenging the kids to a hula-hoop contest.”
The “warming feeling from wine or whisky is temporary,” it warned.