Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
23 September 2020

Leader: Mr Johnson’s hollow promises

The Prime Minister has squandered goodwill by consistently overpromising and under-delivering – the hallmark of his political career.

By New Statesman

On 17 July, as the first wave of Covid-19 receded, Boris Johnson vowed to achieve a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. It was a hollow and foolish promise to have made and betrayed his lack of moral seriousness.

As the Prime Minister has since conceded, the UK is enduring a second wave of Covid-19, with infections and hospitalisations doubling every eight days. This was both predictable and predicted. In an interview with the New Statesman published in July, Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London professor and former Sage member, warned that “high schools are large places… and they connect a lot of households together, because society is a social network. All our modelling suggests that this will lead to an increase in transmission and the [reproduction rate] going above R-1.”

The reopening of schools had the potential to trigger a new spike in infections, but the government was unprepared for this eventuality. As recently as last month, it urged people to “eat out to help out” and warned workers that they risked losing their jobs if they failed to return to offices. Ministers have since imposed a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants and ordered individuals to work from home if they are able to do so. This haphazard and chaotic approach has defined the government’s response to the pandemic.

Epidemiologists have consistently warned that unless or until a vaccine is developed, some degree of social distancing will be essential. But this did not prevent Mr Johnson from hubristically declaring on 19 March that “we can send coronavirus packing”. Reality has proved a stubborn opponent.

The UK was slower than many other countries to lock down, and discharged untested patients from hospitals to care homes, failures that led it to suffer the highest excess death toll of any European state (65,000). As fear spread throughout the economy, the UK endured the worst recession of any G7 country (with GDP falling by 22.1 per cent in the first half of this year), prompting the summer rush to reopen pubs and restaurants. Mr Johnson insisted a “world-beating” test and trace system would allow Britain to ease restrictions without causing a second wave. He was wrong again.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Demand for Covid-19 tests has exceeded capacity by up to four times and almost 90 per cent of tests in England are failing to meet the 24-hour turnaround target. Some tracers have taken up to two weeks to contact colleagues, relatives and friends of people diagnosed with Covid-19 – the entire length of the self-isolation period.

The pandemic would be a forbidding challenge for even the most distinguished government. Ministers must simultaneously contend with a public health emergency and an economic crisis. But Mr Johnson has squandered goodwill and sympathy by consistently overpromising and under-delivering – the hallmark of his political career. Among the 22 countries tracked by the pollster YouGov, no government is worse rated by its people, at a time when incumbency has boosted popularity.

If Mr Johnson’s administration is to regain credibility, it must begin by resolving its contradictory public health and economic strategies. Despite the prospect of a second wave, the ban on rental evictions was lifted on 20 September and the furlough scheme is due to end on 31 October – threatening the highest unemployment rate since the 1980s. Ministers should now reverse these decisions: no one should be forced to choose between protecting their livelihoods and self-isolating to prevent the spread of a pandemic. Though the cost to the Treasury is high, the British government can afford to borrow at record low rates to defend living standards.

The UK is at one of the most precarious moments in its recent history: this autumn it faces the threat of a lethal second wave of Covid-19, rising unemployment and a no-deal Brexit. It is the country’s misfortune, then, to be governed by one of the most callow and unimpressive administrations in memory. For someone of his moral character, Boris Johnson assumed office at the worst possible moment. We can now only hope that the damage is limited. 

Topics in this article :