COVID's impact and its relationship with trust and Cold War Steve
We’re back into the toughest tier of restrictions. Across the nation people have been affected by the pandemic, but Manchester has been a particular hotspot for debates on COVID. Fences around University of Manchester accommodation, Andy Burnham calling out a ‘London-centric’ approach, and Marcus Rashford’s campaign for a government U-turn on food poverty. COVID may be a critical juncture for student relations with older generations and politicians, but Burnham and Rashford’s cases shine a light on much deeper divides in our country. Nevertheless, all three cases can be studied alongside declining trust in politicians and the media, both in their handling of COVID and more generally speaking. Cold War Steve’s twitter collages give but one interpretation of the tensions between the average Briton and the government during this COVID crisis.
COVID as a critical juncture?
The coronavirus pandemic has been described by many scholars as a possible critical juncture. Duncan Green for example discusses COVID’s ‘fork in the road’ potential for political, social and economic systems. Long-term changes may include increased government surveillance, a shift in focus to the care economy, and pressure on central banks to approve more funds for government as ministers remember their ‘money-tree’ during the pandemic (Green, 2020, pp. 1, 5, 8-9). COVID has definitely impacted the relationship between the young and elderly, but as a turning point for voting patterns – this is less clear. Evans and Steven argue ‘the young are being asked to sacrifice and to step up for the old.’ But as ‘solidarity between the generations must work both ways [...] This is also the time for older generations to support the decisive action on climate change and on more sustainable, equitable, and resilient patterns of development that many younger voters desperately want.’ (Evan and Steven, 2020 in Green, 2020, p. 8). A shift in the voting attitudes of older generations to favour issues that impact the younger generation would make COVID a critical juncture for voting patterns. However, whilst sacrifices of the young are evident, only time will tell if the older generations oblige to the new ‘intergenerational social contract’ (Green, 2020, p. 8).
COVID can more explicitly be seen as a turning point for the relationship between students and politicians. University students have often been blamed for anti-social behaviour in local communities. But the pandemic has also seen students being blamed by the government for rises in COVID cases. As students are not a prioritised group to receive the new vaccine, it is possible that this blame relationship may continue in the foreseeable future. Although in October, SAGE admitted cases were rising mostly amongst 17–24-year-olds, SAGE stated blaming young people was “misleading” and called for the government to pay more attention to fixing the track and trace system (Ng, 2020).
However, tensions between students and the government continue. The installation of fences around the University of Manchester’s Fallowfield Campus in November was seen by some students as linked to lockdown requirements partly because of how the University communicated the fence’s purpose. COVID has therefore strained the relationship not only between students and universities, but with young people and the government as well. In May during the first lockdown, those in the 19–30-year-old bracket had the least trust in government (Parsons and Wiggins, 2020, p. 2). After events relating to COVID and students this autumn/winter, it is likely that the level of trust for government amongst this group is now even lower.
Revisiting deeper issues
In many respects COVID is also not a critical juncture, but merely a medium to shine light on old issues and divisions in society. Some issues have been resolved in new ways but there is no guarantee they mark permanent long-term change. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, has frequently described a “London-centric” government response to COVID. He first argued the initial national lockdown was lifted when cases in the capital had fallen, but elsewhere including Manchester, they remained high (Butcher and Aitken, 2020). 7-day cases per 100,000 of the population were 28.9 for Manchester and 4.6 for London when schools reopened on 1st June, and 13.4 and 3.2 respectively when pubs reopened on 4th July (Burnham, 2020). This arguably played a role in Manchester’s comparatively higher cases afterwards. Also, recently he complained London’s placement in Tier 2 continues this ‘London-centric’ trend as economic considerations were made for London but not elsewhere.
Burnham supports tough restrictions and Manchester’s placement in Tier 3. However, Burnham claims that like in October when he had to push the government to increase economic support for those in the highest tier of restrictions, again, sufficient economic support for higher tiers is absent (Burnham in Scheerhout, 2020). By the 2nd December Manchester had spent 40 days under the toughest restrictions, compared to 21 days for the Isle of Wight or Kent. However, the current Additional Restrictions Grant works out to only £3.50 per person in Manchester, but £5.19 for the Isle of Wight or Kent who additionally are back into the lowest tier (Elgot, 2020). The government continues to be criticised for policies which negatively affect regions in higher tiers, many of which are in the North. Therefore, Burnham appears to still hold his opinion that the ‘London-centric’ approach is more damaging to the North than Thatcher's de-industrialisation and neoliberal economics that created a North-South divide in the 1980s (Burnham in Griffiths, 2020). Indeed, despite Johnson’s “levelling up” election pledges, COVID has seen a deepening of the North-South divide where Northern regions especially in Tier 3 have been most affected by unemployment recently (IPPR North in Pidd, 2020). COVID’s ‘fork in the road’ potential for improving relations between the North and South/London has not yet materialised.
Most strikingly, COVID has drawn attention to an even older issue of food poverty. Marcus Rashford was indeed successful in campaigning for the government to U-turn its decision to not provide food vouchers for children during the summer holidays. Again, Rashford recently pressured another U-turn. The government previously argued Universal Credit would suffice paying for food and bills over the winter holidays, but later pledged councils would receive £170million from a wider package to mostly help with these issues. However, this response to the impact of COVID on food poverty does not mark institutional change as the additional £220m for a holiday activity and food programme will only cover the major school holidays in 2021 (Richardson, 2020).
As the government has been forced to U-turn twice on an issue which many see as non-debatable in our modern times, COVID has raised questions on how conservative the government is with respect to conservatism being an ideology that adapts to change when necessary. Cold War Steve, a twitter collage artist, has captured public concerns of archaic government policy. Using an illustration from Dickens’ 19th century novel Oliver Twist, he depicts Boris Johnson as Mr Bumble, the greedy church official who runs a workhouse. In the book, Mr Bumble gasps at the malnourished Oliver’s request for more food – Mr Boris Johnson Bumble is laughing. Nadine Dorries, Minister of State for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety is depicted (like Home Secretary Priti Patel) as one of Mr Bumble’s assistants. Despite her ministerial role suggesting otherwise, Dorries, like most Conservatives before the government U-turn, voted against the bill for free school meals.
COVID, trust and twitter-art
Cold War Steve’s COVID artwork can be seen as a reflection of declining levels of trust in politicians and the media during COVID. Nielsen et al argue that the UK public is ‘in effect returning the favour [of blame] and blaming politicians and news media for their handling of the crisis.’ Trust in the UK government, politicians, and News organisations as a source of information and news on COVID has declined (Nielsen et al, 2020). This could partly explain Ipsos MORI’s findings that the distrust for footballers and charity chief executives has slightly declined, whilst trust for TV newsreaders has fallen, and politicians remain one of the least trusted (Clemence, 2020). In a survey on the perceptions of political leadership during the crisis, only 36% of responders strongly agree or agree that Johnson ‘Is open and transparent in his handling of the coronavirus outbreak’ (Devine et al, 2020, p. 24).
Two of Cold War Steve’s pieces particularly capture this declining trust in politicians. The ‘Piss Stop’ collage above was created in May as news broke that Cummings travelled to Durham when the government advised people not to travel unnecessarily. The collage below uses Hieronymus Bosch’s (c1450-1516) ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ and was created when the pubs reopened after the first lockdown. Phil Mitchell, an EastEnders character, features in most of Cold War Steve’s work and represents the average Briton (Soames, 2020). The rest of the analysis I will leave to your pleasure.
Burnham, A., 2020. I am grateful to the Deputy CMO for recognising this point. Too many rush to blame the public in the North without understanding this. [Twitter]. 12 October. Available at: <https://twitter.com/AndyBurnhamGM/status/1315608195117862912/photo/1> [Accessed 11 December 2020].
Butcher, B. and Aitken, A., 2020. Coronavirus restrictions: Why is so much of the North and Midlands in tier 3?, BBC, [online] 27 November. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/54250626> [Accessed 6 December 2020].
Clemence, M., 2020. Ipsos MORI Veracity Index 2020, Ipsos MORI, [online] 26 November. Available at: <https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-mori-veracity-index-2020-trust-in-professions>[Accessed 7 December 2020].
Elgot, J., 2020. Liverpool and Greater Manchester to lose out on Covid funding, analysis reveals, The Guardian, [online] 26 November. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/26/liverpool-and-greater-manchester-to-lose-out-on-covid-funding-analysis-reveals> [Accessed 7 December 2020].
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Griffiths, N., 2020. England could be seen as being 'more harmful than Margaret Thatcher', fears Andy Burnham, Manchester Evening News, [online] 30 September. Available at: <https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/tougher-covid-restrictions-north-england-19025617> [Accessed 6 December 2020].
Jennings, W., Valgardsson, V., Stoker, G., Devine, D., Gaskell, J. and Evans, M., 2020. Political Trust and the COVID-19 Crisis: Pushing Populism to the backburner? A study of public opinion in Australia, Italy, the UK and the USA. n.p. : Democracy 2025.
Nielsen, R.K., Fletcher, R., Kalogeropoulos, A. and Simon, F., 2020. Communications in the coronavirus crisis: lessons for the second wave. Oxford: Reuters institute for the Study of Journalism.
Ng, K., 2020. Coronavirus: Young people and students not to blame for rise in cases, says Independent Sage, The Independent, [online] 2 October. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-young-people-students-blame-infections-independent-sage-b746383.html> [Accessed 5 December 2020].
Parsons, S. and Wiggins, R.D., 2020. Trust in government and others during the COVID-19 pandemic - Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies. London: UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
Pidd, H., 2020. Covid deepens south and north of England inequalities, study finds, The Guardian, [online] 7 December. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2020/dec/07/covid-deepens-south-and-north-of-england-inequalities-study-finds> [Accessed 7 December 2020].
Richardson, H., 2020. Marcus Rashford welcomes school holiday support climbdown, BBC, [online] 8 November. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-54841316> [Accessed 6 December 2020].
Scheerhout, J., 2020. Andy Burnham slams ministers for the way they spared London from Tier 3, Manchester Evening News, [online] 1 December. Available at: <https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/andy-burnham-slams-ministers-way-19376371> [Accessed 6 November 2020].
Soames, G., 2020. Gideon Soames Presents Cold War Steve. [video online] Available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCfTNoEGCak> [Accessed 29 November 2020].