Leader: Mr Johnson’s hollow promises

The Prime Minister has squandered goodwill by consistently overpromising and under-delivering – the hallmark of his political career.

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On 17 July, as the first wave of Covid-19 receded, Boris Johnson vowed to achieve a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. It was a hollow and foolish promise to have made and betrayed his lack of moral seriousness.

As the Prime Minister has since conceded, the UK is enduring a second wave of Covid-19, with infections and hospitalisations doubling every eight days. This was both predictable and predicted. In an interview with the New Statesman published in July, Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London professor and former Sage member, warned that “high schools are large places… and they connect a lot of households together, because society is a social network. All our modelling suggests that this will lead to an increase in transmission and the [reproduction rate] going above R-1.”

The reopening of schools had the potential to trigger a new spike in infections, but the government was unprepared for this eventuality. As recently as last month, it urged people to “eat out to help out” and warned workers that they risked losing their jobs if they failed to return to offices. Ministers have since imposed a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants and ordered individuals to work from home if they are able to do so. This haphazard and chaotic approach has defined the government’s response to the pandemic.

Epidemiologists have consistently warned that unless or until a vaccine is developed, some degree of social distancing will be essential. But this did not prevent Mr Johnson from hubristically declaring on 19 March that “we can send coronavirus packing”. Reality has proved a stubborn opponent.

The UK was slower than many other countries to lock down, and discharged untested patients from hospitals to care homes, failures that led it to suffer the highest excess death toll of any European state (65,000). As fear spread throughout the economy, the UK endured the worst recession of any G7 country (with GDP falling by 22.1 per cent in the first half of this year), prompting the summer rush to reopen pubs and restaurants. Mr Johnson insisted a “world-beating” test and trace system would allow Britain to ease restrictions without causing a second wave. He was wrong again.

Demand for Covid-19 tests has exceeded capacity by up to four times and almost 90 per cent of tests in England are failing to meet the 24-hour turnaround target. Some tracers have taken up to two weeks to contact colleagues, relatives and friends of people diagnosed with Covid-19 – the entire length of the self-isolation period.

The pandemic would be a forbidding challenge for even the most distinguished government. Ministers must simultaneously contend with a public health emergency and an economic crisis. But Mr Johnson has squandered goodwill and sympathy by consistently overpromising and under-delivering – the hallmark of his political career. Among the 22 countries tracked by the pollster YouGov, no government is worse rated by its people, at a time when incumbency has boosted popularity.

If Mr Johnson’s administration is to regain credibility, it must begin by resolving its contradictory public health and economic strategies. Despite the prospect of a second wave, the ban on rental evictions was lifted on 20 September and the furlough scheme is due to end on 31 October – threatening the highest unemployment rate since the 1980s. Ministers should now reverse these decisions: no one should be forced to choose between protecting their livelihoods and self-isolating to prevent the spread of a pandemic. Though the cost to the Treasury is high, the British government can afford to borrow at record low rates to defend living standards.

The UK is at one of the most precarious moments in its recent history: this autumn it faces the threat of a lethal second wave of Covid-19, rising unemployment and a no-deal Brexit. It is the country’s misfortune, then, to be governed by one of the most callow and unimpressive administrations in memory. For someone of his moral character, Boris Johnson assumed office at the worst possible moment. We can now only hope that the damage is limited. 

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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