Boris Johnson is tough on crime. Except when coronavirus wants to mug Britain | Marina Hyde | Opinion

Exciting news in Johnsonian linguistics this week, as the prime minister’s coronavirus response moves beyond his previous “send it packing” metaphor. Perhaps this is encouraging. I’m no expert in clinicalese, though judging by Johnson’s own repeated experience of being sent packing, this suggested that we are currently dropping bin bags of the coronavirus’s clothes from an upper-storey window. But also that it will have wangled its way back in by November, going “I’ve changed”. Mutated, whatever.

Johnson has now decided the virus is a “mugger”. On Monday, he explained that “this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor”. Which is one way of drawing a veil over the fact he effectively took the mugger to the rugby at Twickenham on 7 March. People say the other parties are soft on crime, but at least they don’t throw 250,000-strong race meetings for it. At least they don’t watch it mug Italy and Spain then leave everyone’s valuables unattended while they bin off some Cobra meetings to finalise a divorce or keep the pubs open or do whatever the Johnson government preferred to do for those lost weeks as we watched the virus coming towards us via the seemingly uninstructive experiences of other countries.

For those fortunate enough not to have lost loved ones to a grim and lonely death, or to be one of the millions requiring food aid, there is vital debate as to what will come to be seen as the prevailing coronavirus mood. Will it be mild breadmaking disappointment, or faux self-deprecation about the homeschool pupils being cleverer than the teacher? It’s certainly a dilemma. But can I go for neither? It feels more likely that the spirit of the times will be a mass choosing-to-forget – a vast absent-mindedness that will settle over the cock-ups like a psychic pall. Why don’t we expect better? I guess it saves time.

Never mind the belated U-turn on locking down, never mind the abandonment of contact tracing, never mind that the government ignored a warning from its own advisers to stockpile crucial kit, leaving it without essential pandemic supplies when the virus hit, never mind that not counting deaths outside hospitals places the toll somewhere north of double the current official figures. Instead, imagine these and other unfortunate matters being nailed and padlocked into crates, to be stored in the vast government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As the blustering bureaucrat lies to Indiana Jones, they have “top men” working on this stuff.

Our own government’s “top men” emerge daily at 5pm from the double doors at Downing Street, which is just a puff of dry ice short of a performance we might call Sars in Their Eyes. Think of this repertory company of cabinet ministers as the Good News Bears. You can certainly always rely on a scenery-chewing performance by Matt Hancock, whose overacting increasingly rivals even some of the Harry Potter cast. Hancock doesn’t so much play to the back row as to the international space station.

As for the press they’re getting, the government is preposterously lucky with some of its critics. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic – which possibly originated in North America – was called the Spanish flu because the country seemed particularly hard hit by the disease. It wasn’t. The Spanish newspapers had just faithfully reported its devastating effects. Unlike Spain, a neutral power in the first world war, countries like the UK and the US were saddled with legislation banning reporting that lowered morale. This led to what is often classed as a catastrophic failure of the fourth estate. Vital health reporting was relegated to dismissive paragraphs, so mass gatherings went ahead and the bitterest harvest was reaped. Meanwhile, papers such as the Washington Times went big on things like a picture of a soldier chasing a turkey wearing a fez, beneath the headline THANKSGIVING IS COMING! Thanksgiving was a month away at the time.

We don’t have censorship in the current pandemic, of course. So there is no legal reason the Sun should run the death toll as a tiny disease particle on page one, failing to attach itself to the vast headline announcing “PUBS SHUT TILL XMAS”. Presumably, the approach is popular.

So a lot of people think journalists aren’t asking enough tough questions – and even more think they shouldn’t be asking questions at all. For them, the only tolerable debate is the lockdown debate – which palpably suits the government. The Good News Bears love the lockdown debate. Why wouldn’t they? Every second you’re having the lockdown debate is a second you’re not having the debate that starts “how in the name of our necrotic self-respect are we on course to be the worst-hit country in Europe when we had so much warning?” Ah well. Perhaps these are not deemed seemly British discussions. Or to put it another way, you won’t catch us getting mugged by reality.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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