The dead cat political tactic is attributed to Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian wizard who helped Boris Johnson to become Mayor of London. His political magic is still regarded with awe in Tory circles. The theory is simple. Whenever the news is bad, very bad for a political leader he or she simply drops a decomposing cat on the political table. Everyone reels back in shock, the news agenda is abruptly changed, and the politician using the dead cat lives to fight another day.
As Monday’s “Freedom Day” approaches, the figures on the Prime Minister’s desk have been truly dreadful. Britain now has the highest number of new Covid cases in the world, after Indonesia and Brazil. Britain under Johnson has ten times more Covid cases than France under Macron – the favourite target for the tabloids, Daily Telegraph and Spectator.
The daily figures have now exceeded 50,000 a day and even the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has warned that this may rise to 100,000 cases a day. This is in sharp contrast to the Prime Minister’s optimism and sunny talk of “Freedom Day” when most controls will be lifted. Super-spreader venues like nightclubs, discotheques, crowded pubs and public gatherings will be free to operate without masks just as they did before the pandemic.
An international conference of scientists has just held an emergency Zoom meeting and begged Boris Johnson to take the rise in Covid cases on his watch more seriously. They say that Johnson’s Freedom Day lifting of measures that other countries still have in place would have “a profoundly damaging impact on England”.
Twenty- to thirty-year olds in London are reporting a massive increase in Covid infection, especially among those who went to the Euro final in Wembley, where very poor policing allowed fans without tickets to scramble into the stadium. Others were reported to have paid £250 to barrier guards on the lowest of wages to be allowed in.
Yet nothing seems to shake the view of lockdown sceptic Tory MPs headed by Steve Baker and his Covid Recovery Group – surely the most oxymoronic title ever — that any continuing controls on Covid are a crime against the Tory vision of Brexit England. Labour is out of the game. The party has no major policy offers on the pandemic, except ever more quarantine in hotels that only the rich can afford.
Australia’s Stephen Duckett, a former secretary of his country’s health department, says: “There is no reputable public health advisor who would advise opening up at a time when the virus is spreading rapidly.”
So what does the Prime Minister do to change the story? He announces that France – yes, it always seems to be France – will now be hit by extra sanctions. Anyone coming in from France by car, Eurostar, bus or plane will now have to go into home detention and pay for expensive tests by overcharging firms — some of them linked to the Tory Party.
It has worked. The Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, the Times and even the Guardian have relegated the disastrous management of the pandemic by ministers and the folly of lifting public health measures. Instead they have front pages about the end of normal holiday traffic with France. Incidentally, ministers’ claims that having two vaccine jabs would allow Brits to enjoy summer holidays across the Channel have been shown to be false.
The nominal reason for putting France back on the quarantine list is the presence of the Beta (or South African) variant. It is indeed a worrying variant, if not as contagious as the Delta (or Indian) variant that Johnson allowed to enter the UK throughout April when he refused to stop flights from India. But the Beta variant has been in Europe, including the UK, since last year. Indeed, Public Health England published a report on the Beta variant in February. No action was taken then. Flights to and from South Africa and Britain have continued daily.
If this South African variant was of such concern to Johnson and Javid, why did they take no action to cut arrivals from South Africa or act in February when Public Health England published its report? The former Labour Cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw tabled a parliamentary question on the Beta variant, having dug up the fact the Government had all the information on it since February. But our Westminster journalists ignored Bradshaw’s important parliamentary work and Labour does not know how to criticise Johnson on Covid.
The sad conclusion is that Johnson has used the dead cat tactic of making France and its President — who is EU Public Enemy Number One for the Brexit commentariat — the headline story today. The BBC and everyone is talking about travel to or through France being hit badly. No-one is talking about the global concern that Freedom Day might make England the Covid capital of the world.
As Sophie Pedder, the very sober, very balanced Economist correspondent in Paris noted in a tweet, the decision to stop tourism to France was “politics”. She is right. But what can anyone do when everything about the handling of the pandemic in England is politics, politics, politics?
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Johnson’s dead cat: the real reason why holidays to France are off | TheArticle