WHEN I was in elementary school in the 1970s we had a teacher who was a huge Beatles fan. One day he had the dizzying idea of playing the psychedelic track Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds to an eight-year-old band.
Monday, September 14, 2020, 5:57 a.m.
Then he let us off the hook to decorate the classroom windows with paint and rolled up tissue paper balls.
The result was a crazy juxtaposition of raw reality and technicolor fantasy. He had a lot in common with the ever-changing governments of the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When, almost in the same breath, the Prime Minister referred to the moon tests and the deployment of new Covid marshals who will be responsible for reporting breaches of coronavirus laws, I was back in this classroom, with a fragile understanding of reality.
I had a sudden image of an astronaut in a hi-vis vest, circling the moon with a clipboard in hand. It’s what a childhood of the 1970s did to my imagination, but it’s no way to run a country.
Like a lot of people, I guess, I had never even heard the word moonshot until last week. I had to look for it. I was surprised to find that some aspects of its etymology are not suitable for repeating in a family journal.
Again, I wondered if the Prime Minister and his advisers know how to use an Internet search engine. Checking things out first could save them a lot of trouble. I was reminded once again how they had to hastily ditch the term cocoon at the start of the lockdown when someone said it was the name of a Ron Howard movie in which old people are made younger by aliens.
I think it was probably the safest thing to know that moonshot is commonly used in a technological context and is taken to describe an ambitious, exploratory and groundbreaking project so out of sync that the risks, rewards and payback cannot be calculated.
First rule of government communication: only use words that people know and understand perfectly. And the second? Speak to the public only when you have a clear message. When the messages are so mixed up that we are asked to believe in two or three inconceivable and contradictory things at the same time, something has gone really wrong.
Mr Johnson appears to be aiming for the sky but at the same time dropping the heavy hand of the law on a disillusioned population.
His idea if it was his idea to unleash this army of marshals in the cities to hand out fines if social distancing measures are flouted, and denounce pubs and restaurants for breaking the rules, was news to many. local authorities who will be. should provide staff for this new working group.
Suddenly the government remembers that the councils should have been key frontline organizations in the fight against the coronavirus from the start. I spoke to many advisers and officials in March and April who were angry and frustrated at being sidelined by Westminster.
However, this so-called solution asks more questions than answers. Where will the funding and long-term training of these new marshals come from? Who will form their ranks? Seconded traffic cops? Will they be gathered by the press?
And Mr Johnson and his elusive Home Secretary Priti Patel, don’t they realize that a high-level law enforcement source has already dubbed them Covid Wombles, which will only increase the pressure on police forces already severely overloaded?
I first raised the issue of communications confusion at the end of March when the lockdown began to take hold. I was hoping Mr Johnson’s usual bluffing and blustering would turn into political type gravitas.
Of course, at the time, the government was doing public relations on its own and there were huge flaws in what passed for strategy.
Luckily he has settled into the simple mantra of staying home, saving lives, protecting the NHS. It was so effective, in fact, that once lodged in public consciousness it proved extremely difficult to change.
Yet hindsight is a wonderful thing, as Mr Johnson reminded Sir Keir, Captain Hindsight Starmer, just last week during questions to prime ministers. And when the situation is changing as quickly as a global pandemic, it is very difficult to accommodate the mistakes of the past as you move forward.
However, the Government must learn from its errors of judgment instead of bombarding us with one illogical and impractical concept after another.
Stay home, go back to work. Believe in moonshot miracles, but don’t get out of line. Send your kids to school every day in classes of 30 or more, but cancel Christmas.
Only one thing is clear. Faced with such a dizzying array of contradictory messages, the public is no longer listening. And, on this point, ministers should be concerned.
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