When blame is not a game

By Fraser Raleigh

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 COVID deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: ‘I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.’ Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how COVID was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for COVID deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.