Which is your favourite fiasco? Let me name them. The story of Britain under the Covid-19 epidemic is just one long catastrophic narrative, with Britain having the highest death rate in Europe and the longest and deepest economic recession. The most disgraceful British government fiasco since Suez, says a writer in the Daily Telegraph.
But these national humiliations do not stand alone. Other fiascos have turned up thick and fast. The quarantine for returning holiday-makers fiasco quickly dropped off the front pages to make room for the A-level results fiasco, and a GCSE results fiasco is imminent. There is a schools-reopening-in-September fiasco in the making, as parents and teachers continue to doubt whether schools are going to be safe places if they reopen. They do not trust the government. Why not, I wonder? Mark the day in your diary, with an F.
Actual A-level exams were cancelled this year, but because employers and universities want to know the grades of those teenagers they are interviewing, a method was devised for calculating what the grades would have been. This started with individual teachers’ estimates of each pupil’s likely result, but then adjusted them – downwards, in virtually every case – to produce an assumed, and in some cases wildly fictitious, hypothetical grade. Pupils knew the result they had achieved in the trial exams they had taken before lockdown, called mocks, and they knew their teachers’ recommended grades based on that. So they knew they had been shafted. Some grades were downgraded from A to C or D.
The statistical algorithm that was employed made all sorts of assumptions, one of which appears to be that teachers’ estimates of a student’s likely performance in state schools, 94 per cent of the total, were far less reliable than similar estimates by teachers in the private fee-paying sector. In the state sector itself, schools which have fared worse in this process are those in the most deprived areas.
Nothing could have been further from the mantra of “levelling up” that Boris Johnson has been trying to make his watchword. The government, realising the depths of unpopularity this was leading them into, has been floundering around trying to find a solution. The situation has a very high potential for further fiascos, given the creative possibilities now available. Anything more likely to inculcate a life-long hatred of the Conservative Party across an entire generation is hard to imagine.
At least the government has realised there was a growing test-and-trace fiasco with the use of private sector contractors, and passed the main responsibility back to local authorities, which are far better equipped to deal with it and where it should have been in the first place. But for reasons that are unexplained, the government has refused to heed the teachers’ and heads’ demands that test-and-trace should be mandatory in all schools.
This is a perfect example of the government disease of we-know-bestism. And it brings into the picture one of the Conservatives’ favourite narratives, sensible government versus wicked trade unions – who have been the mouthpiece for teachers’ fears about a return to work without adequate safeguards. But focusing right-wing hostility to unions in general onto an aspect of the coronavirus crisis, to help the government out of a tight spot of its own making, will not mask the extent of the back-to-school fiasco still ahead. Nor will it stop unions speaking up for their members’ interests, which is exactly what they are supposed to do.
The quarantine fiasco has ruined many a summer holiday already, with more to come. The government allowed the impression to be given that it was OK to head for the southern European sunshine, without explaining that it reserved the right to declare it not OK, virtually overnight, trapping millions of holiday makers in France on the wrong side of a quarantine barrier. They face a fortnight’s house arrest, with people not even allowed to drive to Durham to be near their family and to test their eyesight round Barnard Castle. Unless of course they happen to be the chief government adviser, who felt he could give himself permission. That was yet another fiasco, utterly damaging to the respect in which the government was held.
A fiasco is developing off the south coast in the English Channel, meanwhile, where the fire-breathing right-wing Home Secretary Priti Patel is trying to induce the Royal Navy to turn back refugees, who need to get to British soil, or at least to Britain’s sandy beaches, to make a claim for asylum. Once they have done so they cease to be “illegal”, so her tactics are designed to frustrate the claiming of a legal right.
The perilous cross channel traffic in people is a lucrative trade for criminal gangs, apparently, and frustrating it certainly serves a public good. But why not open a consular office in Calais, say, to handle asylum claims in a regular and safe way? Or would that upset the xenophobic streak in the British tabloid media DNA? It is not unfair to recall that Patel’s own family benefited from British hospitality when people of Asian origin, like her, were being expelled from Uganda in the late 1960s. (I was one of the reporters at the airport to meet them. They were a sad bedraggled lot.)
But she does not seem to have a sense of irony, nor be aware of the similarity between her family’s plight and that of the migrants huddled aboard an open dinghy being towed back to France by a British warship, on her orders. Another fiasco, and not a happy one.