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Us and them: the disconnect between national and local government has never been clearer

Us and them: the disconnect between national and local government has never been clearer

By Ben Norris

On May 21, the Cotswold District Council sent out a press release warned that tourism is still in lockdown. As Councillor Jenny Forde cautioned, visitors to the Cotswolds should come “for a walk, not for a day”, recommending people do not travel more than an hour’s drive from their own home to get to the region. This is a significant contrast to the advice being given by the government, which has effectively greenlighted the mass crowding of tourist hotspots by encouraging people to travel “as far as they want” to exercise. The unclear messaging led many to take this as a sign that the nation’s beaches and beauty spots are fair game, flocking towards the coast in droves. 

In Woolacombe, traffic wardens were running out of tickets to put on illegally parked cars, with beach congestion rivalling that seen during the peak of the summer; in Brighton, news outlets conducted vox pops of confused day-trippers marvelling at everyone having the same idea as them. It seems the nation is very much done with Coronavirus, even if the virus is by no means done with us. Although the mind boggles at members of the public who clog up the roads with their cars and complain of facilities such as public toilets not being open when they’ve deliberately been left closed precisely because local authorities don’t want to incentivse uneccesary visitors during lockdown, they’re not the ones in the wrong here. After over two months of lockdown, the country is restless and keen for respite, however fleeting. The fault lies with Boris Johnson and co., to whom the nation looks now more than ever for guidance. 

Any responsible adult will know about tough love: sometimes it’s not good to indulge a child’s wants and needs, however benign they may be. As the Prime Minister, Johnson needs to take more responsibility for his words and deeds than he currently does. If he did, he wouldn’t have announced this loosening of restrictions in early May. The announcement of unlimited excercise time the other week had the hollow taste of compromise; it was clear the government had hoped to relax restrictions further, but prevailing medical wisdom cautioned against this due to the inevitable rebound in infection numbers, as has already been witnessed in other countries that have loosened their restrictions such as Australia and Germany. 

What we instead received was lockdown’s halfway house, a confusing slew of mixed messages that was heavily criticised almost immediately following its announcement. Local authorities across the country have rightly been concerned; Cllr Forde added that visitors to the Cotswolds needed to be aware that the tourism industry has not yet reopened. “All of our wonderful tourist attractions remain closed. The shops, cafes and pubs that all support tourism are not open. Local public toilets also remain closed in line with public health advice. Tourism is still in lockdown.” 

Complicating this considerably is Dominic Cummings, the government advisor and Vote Leave architect who flounted the rules put in place by the leader he put in power. Much has already been said about why Cummings broke – at the very least – the spirit of lockdown when he drove to County Durham in late March after his wife developed Covid-19 symptoms, but the ramifications are huge. Boris Johnson’s staunch defence of his advisor typifies the ‘us and them’ mentality; what’s good enough for senior officials and those in positions of influence is clearly too good for the nation at large. Dutch PM Mark Rutte did not visit his dying mother during her final weeks because he obeyed his country’s Coronavirus restrictions, showing that it is possible for those at the top to behave sensibly in the face of huge personal tragedy. By violating his own government’s lockdown, Cummings has made a mockery of all of those who did the right thing in not paying a final visit to sick or elderly relatives. In rallying around Cummings, the Conservative governement has cheapened their own message regarding the lockdown; “Stay alert – and don’t get caught.”

This serves to compound the disconnect between national and local authorities, which have been doing their best to support their residents during the pandemic. Stroud District Council has been promoting free home exercise classes to encourage residents to stay fit in isolation, with a £100,000 support fund set up to help people “most in need” during the lockdown. All of this is small beer, however, if those in charge can’t inspire the nation to act sensibly through their own actions; gross hypocrisy is not a powerful motivator. Differing attitudes towards the proposed reopening of schools at the start of June reflect this; while key cabinet members have been vocally advocating the resumption of normal teaching, many councils across England have said they cannot guarentee primaries will reopen at the start of next month. The emerging pattern is one of fragmented leadership that is so much less than the sum of its many more deserving parts. Alarmed parish and district councils have done a much better job of maintaining a consistent tone and message regarding the lockdown than the government, which has often appeared to contradict itself even before the Cummings debacle. 

With uncertainty over how long the world will have to deal with the Coronavirus stretching out ahead of us, what the nation needs right now is consistency to ensure safety. The government’s slow response has already officially cost the lives of some 35,000 people (with the real figure potentially being much higher due to deaths in care homes going unreported); far surpassing the ‘good’ figure of 20,000 deaths that had initially been anticipated by Sir Patrick Vallace, the government’s chief scientific adviser, at the start of lockdown. If a second peak is to be avoided, the message seems to be, councils will have to start taking things into their own hands to enforce a policy the government itself can’t commit to.