When prime minister Johnson announced new measures and recommendations aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus last night (Monday 23rd) I thought the message was clear: the government will maintain certain freedoms, but we all need to do our bit – if we don’t, then harsher, more dictatorial measures are inevitable. I thought this would be widely understood, but judging by what I saw on Ladbroke Grove today, I was completely wrong. Without an urgent awakening to reality, our remaining freedoms will be lost and we will be on full lockdown. And in these surreal times, we might need to rely on the most unlikely sources to help us through.
Socialism is Here
Overwhelmed by crisis, Johnson and his cabinet mutate daily into Britain’s first socialist government, exercising extensive state power in the face of COVID-19. The Tories are now adopting policies unthinkable to them a few weeks ago such as nationalisation and increased social security. Capitalism as we knew it is over, sweeping emergency socialist policies prop up the economy and society – austerity is gone.
But this is no social democracy. It is a country in a state of emergency in which the now all-powerful government have spent so long waving flags while cutting back essential services – nurses, doctors, police – that they have left us all enfeebled.
Given that the health service is teetering on the brink, it is all the more important that citizens do their bit to stop the spread of a virus which has killed 87 people in this country in the last 24 hours alone.
I headed for Ladbroke Grove Sainsburys (the big one) this morning, expecting queues, restricted numbers in the store and all manner of measures to ensure social distancing following Johnson’s announcement. I braced for a lengthy visit, but it was no different to any other day: no queue, no system, no layout changes, no gloves or masks for the staff, just Sainsbury’s making money hand over fist.
Worse, the customers were not observing social distancing at all. The elderly mixed with the very young, people blocked aisles, chatted or reached across to grab something from a shelf. I zig-zagged, tried to anticipate, to swerve, trapped in a game in which nobody else knew the rules.
I found the manager smoking outside and told him he needed to change things urgently. It was immediately clear that this was a man not paid to think or take initiative, no matter the crisis. Orders are given down from above and are followed. The result is that his Sainsbury’s Superstore an incubator for coronavirus.
The manager said there is a message about social distancing “on the floor as you walk in” and that messages were going out “now and again on the tannoy”.
The government needs to take over the supermarkets and guarantee the safe distribution of food. Johnson’s advice to order food online makes no sense. The supermarkets have no delivery slots available and many, like Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury’s, don’t provide a Click & Collect service.
If the government does nationalise the supermarkets or take over food distribution, it is likely it would delegate supervision of this to local councils. For many in North Kensington, this would be a prospect to stir trauma. Before, during and since the last crisis in the area (Grenfell), the local authority has proved itself to be insensitive and incompetent in its dealings with residents.
As it stands, Sainsbury’s and the rest are breeding places for coronavirus, unwilling to take the government’s lead to protect us and relying instead on customers – many of whom are ignorant to the seriousness of the situation – to enforce social distancing. Unlike the corporations, Kensington and Chelsea council is a public body, bound by law to its duty of care to its residents.
As unpalatable as it may seem now, RBKC could be the better bet if a more stringent lockdown is announced. Aside from venues for funerals, food shops would be Britain’s last functioning public spaces. This would present the council with a huge responsibility and the chance to finally get it right during a time of crisis in North Kensington.
By Tom Charles