To judge by social media, the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been self-evidently disastrous. But it has never been truer that “Twitter is not Britain”. The Tories stand at over 50% in the polls— according to an opinion poll last weekend, 57% approve of the government’s response. Even amongst Labour supporters, there is a significant minority who believe the government is doing a good job.
It is tempting to assume that these high approval ratings are the result of the Labour leadership not shouting loudly enough about Tory failings – yet polling shows that 61% also believe the government has acted too slowly. The consensus seems to be that the government has made mistakes but, given the unprecedented scale of the crisis, those mistakes are understandable and forgivable.
Against this background, it is difficult for Labour to attack the government without being perceived as exploiting a moment of national crisis for political gain. Hence the Opposition has been right to avoid getting drawn into a blame game about government decisions made at the beginning of the crisis, and which cannot now be altered. There will inevitably be an inquiry, meticulously establishing the government’s culpability, which will have far greater power to damage its long-term reputation than Labour can at the moment with the government at its most popular.
This does not mean that the Opposition should simply support the government. Labour is absolutely right to go on the attack over decisions which could save lives right now, or in the future – most notably over the scandalous lack of PPE, which is endangering the lives of the same healthcare workers who receive applause from the nation every week.
Meanwhile, Matt Hancock’s target of running 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, looks certain to be missed. This is particularly important because any credible exit strategy from the lockdown will rely on mass testing. Keir Starmer has been criticised for demanding clarity on an exit strategy, both by the Tories who see it as inappropriate, and by some on the left who see it as irrelevant. In fact, a focus on the exit strategy is crucial; if the government gets it wrong, the impact risks having an even greater effect than the current lockdown.
As a comprehensive report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change states, lifting any of the current lockdown measures could accelerate the spread of infection. If this then necessitates further lockdowns, there will be a catastrophic effect on the economy, far beyond what we have seen already. The British Chambers of Commerce has found that 59% of firms do not have enough cash reserves to last beyond the next three months. It is doubtful whether the furlough scheme is sustainable in the medium term – it could cost up to £40 billion just to cover three months. For context, a year’s support at this level would be roughly equivalent to the whole NHS budget. Further lockdowns would therefore lead to widespread business bankruptcies and unemployment on a disastrous scale.
The only feasible way of avoiding this scenario, whilst lifting some of the current restrictions, is through mass testing and contact tracing. The Opposition needs to be hammering this point home, pointing out that delays in setting up such a regime are prolonging the time spent in lockdown.
There are many who have been frustrated by the tone of constructive criticism that Keir Starmer has adopted. But there is clearly no desire amongst most of the public for a hyper-partisan approach at this particular moment. We need to remember that we are only at the beginning of this crisis, and there are already indications that the drip-feed of evidence around government incompetence is beginning to have an impact on voters. YouGov showed a slight drop in the government’s approval ratings last week.
At Prime Ministers’ Questions, Keir Starmer warned Dominic Raab that he will be asking him the same question about deaths in care homes every week. Such persistent and forensic questioning on issues like social care, PPE and testing— where changes in approach could save lives now— presents Labour as professional, competent and dedicated to the national interest, rather than an opposition seeking to use a crisis to score political points. In short, it presents us as a credible future government.
Christabel Cooper is a Labour councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham and a data analyst by trade. She tweets @ChristabelCoops