Boris Johnson only has himself to blame for failure on Covid-19

The UK government has consistently lacked a credible plan on sick pay, quarantine and borders. 

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England’s unlocking is set to be delayed for at least a further four weeks, due to the spread of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated and the rising pressure on healthcare infrastructure.    

As Steve Swinford and Olly Wright reveal in the Times this morning, there may be a specific exemption to allow larger-scale weddings and funerals to go ahead as planned after 21 June (you can read why ministers are concerned about both the political and economic effects of cancelling weddings in my i column). But until that is confirmed, it means another uncertain wait for couples and businesses.  

Elsewhere, the G7 meeting was overshadowed by acrimonious rows about the Northern Ireland protocol, with the British government facing criticism from France and Germany over Boris Johnson’s attempts to reopen the agreement, while the Biden administration revealed that it had a “candid discussion” (that’s diplomat-speak for “we criticised him too”) about the Northern Ireland protocol and the peace process.  

What connects both stories is that Johnson has a point. The rise in cases of the Delta variant and the growing number of people being hospitalised does have consequences for healthcare capacity in the UK: yes, the majority of people being hospitalised now leave safely, but in the meantime, an uncontrolled epidemic means not only direct deaths from Covid-19, but many more indirect deaths due to the consequences for healthcare capacity. 

And the border protocol does create political instability and does cause unhappiness among loyalist communities. While it's far from the only reason for the recent riots, or for Arlene Foster’s defenestration as DUP leader, it is part of the reason why: and that problem is not going to go away any time soon.  

But what also connects both stories is that while Johnson has a point, he doesn’t have an excuse. Anyone who looked at the Irish border question for longer than five minutes knew that the only choices available were continuing alignment between the EU and UK on phytosanitary standards and a host of other regulatory fields in order to maintain the status quo on both the island of Ireland and the Irish Sea border, or a thicker regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea. Johnson consciously rejected the first option and while he may have signed up to the second in a rush, he did so months after it should have been clear that there were only two solutions to the border question available.  

And no one can, at this point, be forgiven for not understanding that without a vaccine, the only way to contain and suppress cases of Covid-19 is lockdown and quarantine. That means proper support for sick pay (which we didn’t do); that means centralised quarantine (which we didn’t do, preferring to pay hotels to shut rather than operate as quarantine centres); that means a serious global effort to vaccinate not just our own population but the global one (which we are still only half-committed to); and it means having a serious plan at the border (which again, is still pending).  

I suspect that, if weddings and funerals are allowed to proceed at a bigger scale after 21 June, then the political damage of the predictable mess we are in will be essentially non-existent, and no one ever went broke betting on England’s indifference to the politics of Northern Ireland. But both these specific failings are about the Prime Minister’s all-round approach and, regardless of whether he can get away with it politically, he’ll surely never achieve much unless he can develop a hitherto unnoticed capacity for self-improvement.

[see also: The UK’s Brexit stance is doing serious damage to its relationship with the US]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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