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2 November 2020

The biggest mistakes made by Boris Johnson’s government during the Covid-19 crisis

Twenty reasons why the Prime Minister’s performance means the UK enters a second lockdown in far worse shape than during the first.

By Martin Fletcher

As England enters a second catastrophic national lockdown, here is the charge sheet against Boris Johnson and his government:

1. The Prime Minister preferred to celebrate Brexit, take holidays and sort out his matrimonial arrangements instead of preparing the nation’s defences against the looming pandemic in January and February. 

2. He failed to take Covid-19 seriously even as the virus spread rapidly in March, allowing major sporting events to continue, boasting of shaking hands in hospitals and mocking “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” about lockdowns. His decision to delay a full national lockdown until 23 March contributed to around 20,000 deaths

3. Johnson’s government and that of Theresa May, in which he served, failed to update contingency plans for a pandemic or to stockpile enough personal protective equipment for front line healthcare workers. 

4. His government failed to protect care homes. At least 20,000 of Britain’s oldest and most vulnerable citizens died as a consequence. 

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5. He shut down Britain’s fledgling test and trace system in March, only to reinstate it in April. Seven months and £12bn later, it is still not fit for purpose

6. He gravely undermined his government’s authority in May by refusing to dismiss Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, for breaking lockdown rules

7. His government failed to quarantine foreigners arriving in Britain until June. 

8. Johnson undermined public confidence in his government through repeated U-turns on issues ranging from free school meals to the NHS surcharge on foreign health workers. 

9. He began relaxing the lockdown in June while the infection rate was still high, and against the advice of senior scientists. The restrictions that remained were so complex and scattershot that few people understood them. 

10. His government equivocated on the wearing of face masks until late July. 

[See also: Britain and Covid-19: a chronicle of incompetence]

11. His government’s failure to provide a workable A-level grading system in August caused distress to tens of thousands of students and chaos for universities. 

12. Johnson has undermined public confidence in himself as a leader by constantly overpromising  notably on the delivery of a “world-beating” test and trace system and the government’s ability to defeat the virus by Easter, by the summer, by Christmas…

13. He has squandered the support of the devolved governments, city mayors, local authorities and MPs by failing adequately to consult, inform or involve them, preferring to govern by edict through a “Quad” consisting of just four senior ministers and himself. 

14. His government has awarded more than £10bn of Covid-related contracts to private companies, many without competitive tender, several to cronies, and with some private consultants paid £7,000 a day. Few have delivered satisfactorily on those contracts.

15. Johnson has repeatedly vacillated between saving lives and saving the economy, between following the science and following his libertarian instincts. Thus, for example, he urged people to “eat out to help out” one month, and to stay at home the next.

16. His government failed to use the summer lull to prepare for the inevitable second wave of Covid-19 this winter. Instead of focusing on the gravest crisis Britain has faced since the Second World War, it pursued vendettas against the civil service, the BBC and the judiciary. 

17. He refused to accept the EU’s offer to extend the Brexit transition period, ensuring additional turmoil and disruption when that period expires on 31 December. 

18. His government’s communications policy has been characterised by confusion, deception, trite slogans and leaks  even the decision to impose a second lockdown was leaked

19. He rejected calls from his scientific advisers in September, and from Keir Starmer in October, for a national two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, preferring to rely on a system of tiered regional lockdowns that has failed to prevent the infection rate from surging once more. That delay means the second wave will be far more serious.

20. Beyond hoping for a vaccine that may or may not materialise, Johnson has yet to articulate a coherent strategy for defeating Covid-19 and rescuing the economy. 

Other governments have made similar mistakes as they have sought to tackle the hugely complex and unprecedented challenge posed by Covid-19, but few have made as many. As a result, the UK has suffered the highest number of excess deaths in Europe, and the worst economic recession of any G7 member state.

Moreover, its dismal performance means the country enters this second lockdown in far worse shape than it entered the first. The government has forfeited the trust of those it purports to govern. People are angry, rebellious and fed up, and less willing to comply with the rules. Businesses have exhausted their reserves. Health workers are exhausted. Personal savings are depleted.

The national unity, the “Blitz spirit”, the sense of shared adversity that sustained the UK through the first lockdown, which saw millions of people signing up as volunteers and applauding the NHS on Thursday evenings, has largely vanished, as has the warm, sunny weather of last spring.

With the infection rate, death toll and unemployment set to soar once more, with thousands of businesses likely to go bust, and with months of wet days, dark nights and severe social restrictions ahead, the country faces its bleakest winter in memory.

[See also: The fatal delusions of Boris Johnson]