Ten days or so ago, Leicester was an overlooked but fascinating city trying to find its way through the Covid-19 crisis in much the same way as everywhere else: whatever its problems, a diverse, vivacious place where people can trace their backgrounds to over 50 countries around the world. Since a first visit in my early 20s, I have grown very fond of it. During the general election of 2015, when on an assignment to follow Nigel Farage around Lincolnshire, I made a point of staying there en route, solely to remind myself of the England that his politics of nastiness and grievance did not speak for, and of a future that, even as the clouds of Brexit gathered, still felt like it might be within this country’s grasp.
And now? As anyone famous will tell you, residence in the headlines tends to reduce people and places to cheap and nasty cliches. And so it has proved. Rather than pointing to appallingly mixed messages from the government, too much coverage of the city’s outbreak has focused on supposedly irresponsible people flouting social distancing rules, while reports of “language barriers” among the local population and the city’s exploited garment factory workers still having to go into work during lockdown have led in some cases to racist poison on social media.
No sooner had he bemoaned his city’s treatment by the government than Leicester’s elected mayor was the subject of stories in the national press about visits to his “lover” during lockdown, some of them led by a local Tory MP who had only recently claimed that Dominic Cummings was the victim of a “media witch-hunt”. Such are the distractions that have swirled around the central story – of delays in detailed data about infections in the city being given to local officials and politicians, the late arrival of additional testing facilities, and the local police receiving “minimal guidance” . If anything perfectly captured the dysfunction of it all, it was surely the spectacle of local voices being bypassed as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, served notice from Westminster of Leicester’s lockdown, leaving people on the ground to somehow muddle through.
Mix together condescension, vagueness and government by edict, and one thing will spread faster than any virus: the same feeling of local powerlessness that has gripped England for well over 10 years. It is now as central to our experience of the Covid-19 crisis as it was to how millions of people voted in the Brexit referendum, and it has manifested in the strange, slightly hysterical national mood that seems to be defining the summer.
Beyond exhortations to go to the pub and shop for Britain, no one in Westminster and Whitehall seems to know where we might be heading. Whenever I speak to members of the public, there is a strong sense that they feel as if they are being left to drift, with no direction from anyone at the top. We seem to have arrived in the worst of all words: local decision-makers being all but ignored, while power at the centre is proved to be not just distant, but useless.
Up close, the mess that sits at the heart of all this is still quite something. Over a month ago, I started investigating how little access on-the-ground health officials had to “pillar 2” data about Covid-19 infection outside hospitals; what’s striking now is that any meaningful improvement has only just arrived. We now know that the outsourcing giant Deloitte’s contract to run the network of national Covid-19 testing centres does “not require the company to report positive cases to Public Health England and local authorities”. The centralised test-and-trace system still looks deeply defective. And complaints from local leaders still echo loud and clear, highlighting the extent to which the only people who can deal convincingly with on-the-ground developments still feel cut adrift.
Last Thursday, I put in a call to Stephen Houghton, the Labour leader of the Barnsley borough council in South Yorkshire, which – along with such places as Bedford, Rochdale and Bradford – had been placed on Public Health England’s “online dashboard” as a supposed Covid-19 hotspot. Infection rates in his area, he said, had now substantially dropped. But after weeks of lobbying, he and his colleagues had received data about local infection broken down by all-important postcodes only the day before we spoke. When it came to Westminster and Whitehall, he said, “nobody’s been in contact with us – not a soul. All we’ve had is a media storm.” Those last words sounded like a crisp definition of this government’s most basic failures.
Last week Boris Johnson gave a speech about economic policy in which he returned to the idea that large swaths of the country felt “left behind”, “neglected” and “unloved”. A few days earlier, Michael Gove had delivered a much-discussed oration-cum-essay in which he spoke of “a deep sense of disenchantment on the part of many of our citizens with a political system they feel has failed them”. These are reheated ideas – cliches now, surely – that defined the politics of Brexit and the kind of frustrations that ensured the leave campaign won. But they also speak to the Covid-19 moment – and the spectacle of government denying people and places any meaningful agency while clinging to the idea that it can push the country away from crisis via announcements that no one believes any more. Dejection and disconnection may have brought Johnson and his allies to power, but they themselves are now deepening those aspects of the enduring public mood.
And still they behave as if they can work miracles. Amid Johnson’s talk of him and Cummings somehow “rewiring” the state, when the prime minister outlines his plans for “a prodigious amount of government intervention”, he sounds like he is channelling the gigantist spirit of the old Soviet Union, albeit on a shoestring budget. In his speech, he said he wanted to “unleash the potential of the entire country” – to “build a more beautiful Britain” full of buses, trains and newly planted trees, while accelerating “projects from the south-west to the north-east, from Wales, to Scotland, to Northern Ireland, to drive economic growth in all parts of the country”.
Beyond a mention of the West Midlands mayor, the only nod to the balance between local and central power was the worrying promise of the “most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war”. The new economic policy, it seems, will be dropped on places just as clumsily as local lockdowns – and by the same people, whose lack of the basic skills of government has been so comprehensively exposed. Meanwhile, contrary to Johnson’s claim that “we will not be responding to this crisis with what people called austerity”, councils are still facing huge holes in their budgets, and even more cuts.
Gove, to give him his due, at least wondered “how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them”. The problem is that such words are empty of specifics, and devoid of any urgency. Come the autumn, high streets will be emptying out, unemployment will be rising fast and the country’s sense of powerlessness may well have turned critical. By that point, I would imagine that the emotive old phrase “take back control” will have a dreadfully hollow ring.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist