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Roger Winterbottom
Features Writer
9:16 AM 25th September 2020
Opinion

Don't Dream It's Dover

As the Brexit negotiations near their endgame – what do you mean, you thought Brexit was done? – we have at last put in place measures to regain control of our borders. Yes, the new border between Kent and the rest of the UK should make things interesting, with Michael Gove announcing that lorry-drivers will now need a “Kent Access Permit”. We’ve gone from the CAP to the KAP. It doesn’t seem long ago that Boris Johnson said that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up” to customs checks between Northern Ireland and the mainland as it would risk "damaging the fabric of the Union." Then again, he did sign up to one in the Withdrawal Agreement, so perhaps it’s no great step to inflict the same thing on Kent. I hope we don’t get a flood of Kentish folk trying to escape the county for a better life in Sussex. I’d hate to see poor Nigel Farage peering through his binoculars at carloads of refugees struggling down the A26 from Royal Tunbridge Wells. Perhaps we could at least establish an Air Bridge between Kent and England so that people can still take a holiday in Margate.

Image by Will Heidelbach from Pixabay
Image by Will Heidelbach from Pixabay
Gove issued a letter to UK hauliers urging them to make sure they were ready for the new border checks, even though no guidance on what is required has yet been produced and there is no sign of the software that will be used to manage the checks. I don’t think Gove himself believes half of the things he says. Or, for that matter, the other half. But if things go wrong, no doubt it will be the hauliers’ fault for not having followed the non-existent instructions. Assigning blame to the public certainly seems to have been the message from Boris Johnson’s latest address to the nation about the rising level of Covid infections and the new measures that are being put in place as a result. We were told that the virus is spreading again because of a minority of people breaking the rules. It is, of course, mere coincidence that the rise in infections happened at the same time as pupils going back to school, workers being told to return to their offices, pubs reopening, and a subsidised scheme to encourage people into restaurants.

“There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority who do comply, the law-abiding majority,” said Johnson, “than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules.” Very true. It’s not as if anyone in government – not even, say, a special adviser – ever brazenly defied the rules, with half the Cabinet then rushing to tell us it was all perfectly fine. Yes, I can imagine there really would be nothing more frustrating than that.

Asked why other countries are apparently controlling the virus spread more effectively, Johnson said, “There is a difference between our country and others. Ours is a freedom-loving country.” Right. People in other countries don’t like being free. It’s that “Rule, Britannia!” thing again, isn’t it? “It’s very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary,” he confirmed. “And that’s why we’re mobilising our troops to enforce them,” he almost said. It’s funny how we’ve gone from Johnson a year ago saying he wanted to put an end to the nanny state, to him now sending in the army to make sure the pubs shut at 10pm.

“We will get through this winter together,” Johnson added. Well, we might do, if we were only allowed to meet other people. “Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour,” he Churchilled. Hmm. Does anyone want to remind him about Cummings again?

The government is still pinning its hopes on a mass-testing programme – Operation Moneyshot, sorry, Moonshot – with £100bn pledged to be spaffed up the wall. Sorry, invested in the programme. No doubt this will go just as well as the current test and trace operation, which the government finally admitted was having problems after months of insisting otherwise. Watching Johnson respond to Keir Starmer’s queries about the tracing service at Prime Minister’s Questions is like a Two Ronnies sketch, where Johnson answers the question he wished he had been asked.

The test and trace service is led by Baroness Dido Harding, of whom Matt Hancock memorably said that he “can’t think of anyone better than Dido” to run it. Was Chris Grayling not available? Oh no, I forgot, he’s now too busy earning an extra £100,000 for one day a week advising a major ports company. It looks like that minor inconvenience with the shipless ferry/pizza company hasn’t held him back. You have to wonder what sort of expertise Hutchison Ports think they’re securing. Still, their loss is the intelligence committee’s gain.

Dido Harding’s qualifications for the tracing job appear to be extensive: she is a Tory peer, is married to a Tory MP, and is bezzies with Hancock. Any discernible experience, however, in leading a health organisation is, erm, hard to trace. But as people struggle to access a Covid test or, like the Proclaimers, have to travel 500 miles to get one, Hancock has defended Dido Harding with a vengeance (Bruce Willis wasn’t available), saying “Baroness Harding has done an extraordinary job”. She certainly has, though not perhaps in the way Hancock meant. Hancock also suggested that the reason it has become harder to get a test is that they are so popular because – like food banks – they are free. Yes, there’s nothing better than driving for hours crammed into a car with a bunch of infectious people to have swabs painfully inserted up your nose. It’s a fun day out for all the family – and it’s free! No wonder people are queueing up for it.

And it is the malfunctioning test system that has caused Boris Johnson’s latest dilemma. He doesn’t want to have another full lockdown, but the test and tracing system isn’t effective enough for life to continue as normal. You might say that he’s caught between a lockdown and a Harding trace.

Indeed, Johnson admitted that he was “spiritually reluctant” to take the measures he did this week to reimpose some elements of lockdown. Going by the Catholic baptism his baby had a few days ago, despite Johnson converting to Anglicanism many years previously, it seems his spirituality is as flexible as his marriage commitments. Or his relationship with the truth. Or his attitude to Brexit. Or his approach to international law. Even the Withdrawal Agreement, which all the Conservative candidates had to sign a pledge to support before the General Election, Johnson now wants them to vote against. But then, he does have form in abandoning things he was responsible for creating nine months earlier.

The former PM, Theresa May, has said that undermining the Withdrawal Agreement with the Internal Market Bill would “lead to untold damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation”. Theresa – it really won’t. Our reputation is already gone. And as for that oven-ready deal, did no-one mention that the oven was set to self-destruct?