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6 January 2021updated 07 Jan 2021 10:10am

Leader: The careless Mr Johnson

History will record the British government’s handling of Covid-19 as a study in false hope and failure. 

By New Statesman

In March 2020, as coronavirus spread with lethal speed across the United Kingdom, the Johnson government prevaricated. The Prime Minister’s failure to impose an early lockdown – and the decision to discharge patients from hospital to care homes – is estimated by medical experts to have cost tens of thousands of lives.

Since then, the government has not learned lessons about the importance of swift, decisive intervention. Far from compensating for their past errors, ministers have continually repeated them.

For weeks, as the more transmissible strain of Covid-19 led to a dangerous surge in cases, it was clear that a new national lockdown would be necessary (as Sage scientists warned Mr Johnson on 22 December). But the Prime Minister again postponed the inevitable. On 3 January, in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he insisted “schools are safe” and urged parents not to keep children at home. On Monday 4 January, many children returned to schools in England. That same evening, as Mr Johnson announced another national lockdown in a televised address, he warned that “schools are vectors of transmission”. This is unacceptable and careless governance, and it would be comic were it not tragic.

It was said of the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith by his successor David Lloyd George that “the PM never moves until he is forced, and then it is usually too late”. The same has been true of Mr Johnson’s conduct throughout the pandemic. On 21 September, when an average of 6,000 new Covid-19 cases were recorded a day, he dismissed Sage’s recommendation of a second lockdown. By November, when the Johnson government finally acted, daily cases stood at 24,000.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s decision to open schools for one day put lives at risk]

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Rather than levelling with the public during the greatest crisis it has faced since the Second World War, the Prime Minister has continually offered false hope. On 19 March, he declared that we could “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks; in July he promised “a more significant return to normality” by Christmas. And so it goes on.

Until the mass rollout of a vaccine, scientists emphasised, it was always hazardous to promise any return to “normality”. They warned in advance of the threat of a second wave and of dangerous mutations. A wise administration would have prepared for the worst, rather than merely hoping for the best.

It is not only Mr Johnson who bears responsibility for the UK’s baleful handling of the pandemic. An industry of “lockdown sceptics” – given disproportionate weight by the media – has pumped out misinformation and propaganda.

No one relishes lockdowns. They inflict significant social, economic and psychological harm on all age groups and impair children’s education. But they are a necessary tool to prevent the transmission of a deadly virus and the NHS from being overwhelmed.

[see also: The UK doesn’t just need a March-style lockdown, it needs public buy-in]

Had the UK imposed a rapid lockdown and strict border controls last year, alongside mass testing and an effective test and trace system, it could have succeeded in managing the pandemic as other countries have (New Zealand, South Korea and Norway among them). After all, it has the advantage of being an island nation.

Only now, a year after the discovery of Covid-19, is the UK government planning to force foreign travellers to Britain to receive a negative test before their journey.

As Dr Phil Whitaker, our medical editor, writes on page 22, rather than pursuing a “zero Covid” strategy and seeking to “drive infection rates into the ground”, last summer the government encouraged the public to “Eat Out to Help Out” and implored them to return to their offices.

The development and rollout of vaccines has given hope of a return to something approaching how we used to live. But premature celebration should be avoided: vaccines may prove ineffective against new strains of Covid-19, such as the South African variant, and the pandemic will inflict lasting social, economic, psychological and medical scars. One suspects history will record the British government’s handling of Covid-19 as a study in false hope and failure. 

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control