Boris Johnson’s government is paying for its dangerous arrogance

As the first UK coronavirus cases were confirmed, the government was focused on Brexit and destructive vendettas. 

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The country has to welcome Boris Johnson’s imminent return to action after his near-death experience, but that is not to say that the Prime Minister should be given a free pass. The lamentable nature of his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is becoming daily more apparent.

In fairness, he and his ministers faced some extraordinarily difficult choices and a crisis unlike any experienced by their recent predecessors. Yet they failed swiftly to adopt the “test, trace and isolate” policy that proved successful in places such as South Korea, Germany and Taiwan, having initially preferred the idea of promoting “herd immunity” by letting the virus run amok. Even now ministers are falling far short of their target of conducting 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day. 

Britain was one of the last developed countries to impose a lockdown. The government failed to ensure hospitals had enough personal protective equipment for its staff. It has yet to decide whether people should wear masks in public places. It continues to allow 15,000 passengers a day to enter the country untested through our airports, while failing to repatriate some 60,000 British citizens stranded abroad. The UK looks likely to suffer one of the highest death tolls in the Western world, and only the singularly abject performances of Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro make Johnson’s look passable.

The root of the government’s failings was hubris. Having won what Johnson described as a “stonking” victory in last December’s general election, the government’s focus was on extracting the UK from the European Union as fast as possible. But even as it celebrated our formal departure with parties and light shows on 31 January, the first coronavirus cases were being confirmed on these shores.

On 13 February, Johnson conducted a ministerial reshuffle that completed the purge of experienced “grown-ups” from the government and backbenches that began at the end of the last parliament. He instead awarded top jobs to relative mediocrities whose top qualifications were their loyalty to the Prime Minister and commitment to Brexit. In Johnson’s absence, the likes of Dominic Raab, Matthew Hancock and Priti Patel have found themselves running the country.

Johnson then departed on a 12-day “working holiday” with Carrie Symonds at Chevening, his grace and favour mansion, notwithstanding the fact they had spent ten days in Mustique together over New Year. His chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, was meanwhile pursuing his destructive vendettas against the civil service, the BBC, the judiciary and the establishment in general.

As for the opposition, far from raising the alarm as coronavirus spread westwards the Labour Party was engaged in a protracted leadership election that seemed, at times, to be more concerned with trans rights than the nation’s safety and security. As he was on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn was largely invisible.

It was small wonder, then, that while Johnson and his cronies enjoyed untrammelled power they failed to pay heed to the looming pandemic. The Chinese government shut down the city of Wuhan on 23 January. The World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency on January 30. Italy announced a total lockdown on 9 March, and France on 17 March. But Britain let 250,000 racegoers attend the Cheltenham festival, and 54,000 football fans watch Liverpool play Atletico Madrid, before following suit on 23 March.  

Far from following the “action this day” mantra of his idol, Winston Churchill, we now know that from 24 January, Johnson missed five meetings held by Cobra, the government’s top-level emergency committee, to discuss the coronavirus threat before finally attending on 2 March. 

Traces of hubris persist. Even as it calls for national unity, Johnson’s government refuses to seek an extension for the Brexit transition period that ends on 31 December. It refuses even though the chances of the UK securing an EU trade deal are now negligible in the little time left, and crashing out without such a deal would deliver another crushing blow to British businesses already reeling from the lockdown.

The coronavirus crisis has both strengthened and weakened the arguments for Brexit. On the one hand, the EU has proved largely ineffectual as its member states have crafted their own responses. On the other, the overbearing federal superstate has been shown to be a figment of the Brexiteers’ imagination.

But advocating an extension to the transition period is not some devious Remainer plot to thwart Brexit. Nobody is seriously suggesting our departure can be reversed. It is a plea for common sense in the face of the government’s lingering ideological lunacy and reluctance to lose face.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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