The Covid-19 pandemic would be a forbidding challenge for even the most judicious and experienced government. Ministers must simultaneously contend with a public health emergency and the threat of the biggest economic recession since 1706. It is the UK’s misfortune, then, to be governed by one of the most callow and unimpressive administrations in postwar history.
Though Boris Johnson has boasted of Britain’s “apparent success” in combating coronavirus, the story to date is one of carelessness and “failure”, as Laura Spinney, author of The Pale Rider, a history of the Spanish flu pandemic, describes it on page 30. The UK has endured the world’s second highest death toll (more than 32,000 people) after imposing a perilously late lockdown, and initially recorded one of the lowest testing rates. NHS and care home workers, meanwhile, have been imperilled by a chronic lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
These initial errors have been compounded by a succession of haphazard interventions. Most recently, after a week of confused briefings, the government replaced its “stay home” message with “stay alert”. Downing Street did not seem to have consulted the Scottish and Welsh administrations in advance of the changed message. In any event, the devolved nations rejected it, thus fracturing the hard-won unity over the virus among the four nations of the kingdom.
Mr Johnson’s address to the nation was eventually broadcast, on the evening of Sunday 10 May, it was received with widespread confusion, even derision. His order for people to return to work if they were unable to work from home – apparently as early as the next morning – was not accompanied by detailed guidelines on how their safety would be guaranteed. Are those who depend on public transport still expected to return to work? How should parents caring for children proceed? Should people now wear face coverings in public areas? None of these questions were answered or even acknowledged by Mr Johnson’s address.
It was only the following evening – after rebukes from employers’ federations and trade unions – that the Prime Minister referred to the need for detailed discussion: “If you can’t work from home you should talk to your employer about getting back to work,” he said.
For those who monitored Mr Johnson’s performance as mayor of London and later as foreign secretary, this slapdash style came as little surprise. But the Prime Minister is now under greater scrutiny than at any time in his political life.
After his near-death experience with Covid-19, Mr Johnson seemed to find a new register. In a video message after he was released from hospital, he spoke movingly of the nurses who saved his life and hailed the NHS as “unconquerable” and “powered by love”. But his poorly written broadcast on 10 May expressed little empathy. As the Labour leader Keir Starmer noted in his response, there was no reference to “when we could see our loved ones again” and no acknowledgment of the need for a “better society”.
The haste with which Mr Johnson urged people to return to work partly reflects the costs the Job Retention Scheme has imposed on the government. But this enlightened intervention has been rightly extended until the end of October by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The policy has prevented a spike in unemployment comparable to that in the US (where joblessness has already reached 14.7 per cent) and limited the fall in economic demand. Most crucially, it has prevented workers from being forced to choose between their safety and their living standards.
The government will never be able to compensate for the avoidable human harm caused by its early mistakes when it sought to mitigate rather than suppress the virus, but it can ensure they are not repeated. Having imposed the lockdown too late, it would be reckless now to end it too early, or to deny workers the protection they need. Mr Johnson’s task, at this perilous hour, is not to claim success or to bluster – it is to avert any further failures.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion