Boris Johnson’s message to Britain on the lockdown is ‘trust us’. Why should we? | Zoe Williams | Opinion

Lockdown is breaking down. Or is it? The Daily Express has pictures of packed beaches in Brighton, yet locals dispute their veracity. Traffic was at its highest over the weekend since restrictions began. Rumours abound that cleaners and nannies are being quietly rehired; that people are visiting loved ones under an array of special circumstances. On Sunday, you could smell the barbecues – but what were you doing out, within smelling distance, anyway? The guy in front of me in Co-op was buying 48 beers and a tub of ice-cream. But he can’t have been having a party, I decided. No way was that enough ice-cream.

In the last days of March, there was huge solidarity around the restrictions themselves: 10 days in, there was a much sourer unity building around censure of the bad people, the ones who were sunbathing. I suspect a new, nudge-nudge-wink-wink solidarity will emerge around noncompliance, which will go head-to-head against the group that remains committed to lockdown. But the lines will be confusing: especially in the US, but also here in Britain, those ideologically most aligned to the government are the ones that reject its proscriptions most strongly. Lockdown is active and collective – we all have to do it, constantly, for it to exist at all. So the process around it has to be deliberative, just, consensual and transparent – otherwise the buy-in will evaporate.

On Saturday, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics spelled out the “basics of democratic governance”, as they related to Covid-19. There are balances to be struck between different interests and different risks, who and what should be prioritised, who should bear responsibility for what. Following the science “is not politically or morally neutral”. We all need to discuss decisions that affect us all, and to do so we need more information, more openness, more pluralism.

This was all so unarguable, so level-headed, that it only became interesting when counterposed against Boris Johnson’s speech this morning: a huge duvet of flim-flam congratulating us on our national resolve was meant to be warming, but instead felt infantilising and obscure. When the prime minister reached his point, it turned out to be: “We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow, or even when, those changes will be made.” While it made no sense on its own terms (“even when”? What do “fast” and “slow” mean, except “when”?), its meaning was quite plain: the government cannot bring you into its decisions; you must prepare yourself to know nothing, until such time as we can tell you something; we will not be pressed on when that will be.

There followed some lip service to “maximum possible transparency” and building “the biggest possible consensus”. But without any concrete sign of those things, it was simply a demand for ultimate trust. Trust the government to know when the first peak is over. Trust it to know what the second peak will look like. Trust it to evaluate all the trade offs in a democratic way. It’s quite an ask from a government whose basic competence, throughout, has been so questionable.

Johnson lacks the personal credibility to beg this confidence, but the inadequacies spread far wider. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is popular in some quarters: others point out that it’s easy to be liked when, every time you open your mouth, it’s to hose money at people (and easy to be disliked, when that money never materialises). Either way, Sunak is completely untested; it would be extraordinary at any time to have such an inexperienced chancellor, let alone now.

The key figures of the cabinet, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove, were chosen for their hawkishness on a now completely irrelevant issue, but that trait lingers in both: “I’m in charge, don’t ask questions, leave me alone to get this done.” There were, four months ago, enough people in the country with little enough interest in the future of tedious trade deals that they were prepared to do exactly that. There is nobody with so little to say about their own health and livelihoods that they’ll extend the same blank cheque to a crisis like this one.

Below these ministers sits a layer of politicians – Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Helen Whately – who are trying to touch the grace notes of patriotism and self-sacrifice without anything like the gravitas or credibility they need. It’s almost painful to watch, like someone trying to play Mozart’s Requiem on the spoons.

Even normally supportive newspapers are beginning to pick apart the competence, honesty and preparedness of the government. Yet what will really damage it is not the failing of any individual or policy, nor that failing coming to light; but rather, its modus operandi, which is built on dominance. We watched a cohort of politicians elevate themselves by their disregard for consensus: it came to be understood that discursive politics was for the good times, and when things got serious, strong men with their bare assertions were required. Of course, the opposite is true: a real crisis needs everyone to cooperate; and for that, everyone must be heard.

If Johnson thinks his Downing Street statement bought him time, it didn’t; it fired the starting gun for a race towards some real transparency, a wider debate of maturity and complexity, undertaken with better, fuller information. If he can’t get there by 7 May, when the next review of the lockdown is due, the country will simply outpace him.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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