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Boris Johnson prioritised Brexit politics over public health

At the Covid-19 Inquiry, it was clear that British exceptionalism defined the former prime minister’s pandemic response.

By Zoë Grünewald

In his much-anticipated appearance before the Covid-19 Inquiry yesterday (6 December), Boris Johnson attempted to absolve himself of responsibility for the disastrous handling of the pandemic under his leadership.

The former prime minister’s testimony has served as a focal point for the inquiry, at which there has been a series of revelations over the past few months. The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than 230,000 lives in the UK since 2020; Hugo Keith KC, the counsel to the inquiry, said this was the second-highest death toll in Western Europe. Prior inquiry witnesses, including Johnson’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings and the former health secretary Matt Hancock, have already painted a damning picture of chaos, infighting and a toxic culture within Whitehall during his tenure.

The UK government’s response to Covid-19 has been widely criticised; it was marked by rule-breaking in No 10, allegations of massive taxpayer money losses to Covid loans fraud, and incoherent policies. Johnson, inevitably, faced difficult questions.

This portion of the inquiry is examining decision-making in the early days of the pandemic and the consequences of a delayed governmental response. Johnson’s defence fell short. Despite his claim that there wasn’t a “loud enough klaxon of alarm”, evidence showed that experts had raised concerns about Covid-19 as early as January, yet the prime minister had not taken these warnings seriously enough.

Johnson attributed his lack of urgency to pandemic fatigue, suggesting that officials operated under assumptions from previous outbreaks such as Sars and Mers. But Johnson’s feeling was not shared by his closest officials at the time. Key figures such as Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England at the time, estimated a worst-case scenario of 100,000 to 300,000 deaths in February 2020.

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Truthfully, the klaxon was not loud enough for Johnson and Johnson alone. Covid-19 was not a priority for him, even when his officials and the rest of the world were taking it seriously. In November this year the former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara described the overconfidence within Downing Street, recounting a meeting in early March where officials were dismissive of the Italians’ response, showcasing a dangerous lack of foresight.

In her witness evidence she wrote: “I remember on one particular day – it would have been early March – going into a meeting on behalf of the cabinet secretary […] the jovial tone, the view that [in] implementing containment measures and suspending work and schooling the Italians were overreacting, and the breezy confidence that we would do better than others, had jarred me.”

The view of Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, added weight to this testimony. It emerged that she had emailed colleagues in February 2020 to say the Italians were in a “rubbish position” as they had a less centralised health service than the UK. In her eyes, the UK was far better equipped than its European counterparts to deal with coronavirus.

The political context is important here. Johnson, elected on a “Get Brexit Done” platform, faced a sudden shift in priority from Brexit to a pandemic response just three months into his premiership. The government’s preoccupation with Brexit, and obstinate celebration of a new, isolationist era for Britain, left them ill-prepared for a health crisis that demanded a collaborative, international approach to policy. In July this year Michael Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister at the time, told the inquiry that his sole focus in the lead up to the pandemic was preparations for a no-deal Brexit, after it was revealed that six pandemic preparation projects were stopped or reduced to accommodate urgent no-deal Brexit work.

Even yesterday, Johnson refused to acknowledge the UK’s grim standing when it came to Covid deaths in western Europe. While he may try to paint a picture of institutional stagnancy and false alarms, the real impediment to an effective response was his unwavering focus on Brexit and isolationist agenda. In the end, this was an outlook that sacrificed public health for political priorities.

[See also: We’re telling the wrong story about climate policy]

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