On Sunday 19th March 2020 a surprising shift occurred in discourse from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press where The Times reported “failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.” The article cites a senior advisor to Downing Street who “broke ranks” and blamed a “failure of leadership” for the UK’s inability to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The source criticised Boris Johnson for his marked ambivalence towards the biggest public health crisis in a century. What were the key points? What were the revelations? Is this all too little too late?
One of the fundamental revelations was that Boris Johnson had skipped five COBRA meetings about the virus. The Prime Minister usually chairs these meetings with military officers, intelligence chiefs and ministers in attendance. COBRA meetings are only called to address issues that are seen as a national threat such as a war or in this case, a virus.
“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the advisor said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.”
On 24th January, Matt Hancock chaired the first COBRA meeting; on the same day Chinese doctors wrote in The Lancet medical journal that the situation could be similar to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 that claimed the lives of 50 million people. While Johnson did not have time to attend this meeting, he did spare a moment to join in with in a Lunar New Year dragon eyes ritual led by the Chinese ambassador.
Johnson gave a speech on the 31st January, otherwise known as ‘Brexit Day’, declaring the withdrawal from the EU and welcoming the glory of a new era for the UK. Unfortunately, the source conceded that preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning.” At this point, one of Johnson’s chief scientific officers, Chris Whitty, had been informed that the virus’ infectivity could be as bad as Imperial College London’s worst estimates in a Nervtag advisory meeting.
In 2016, Exercise Cygnus, modelled by Imperial College London, had shown the government that there would be a shortage of critical care beds, morgue capacity and personal protective equipment during a virus pandemic similar to that of Covid-19. Despite this, the source likens the government’s threadbare pandemic planning to a “causality of the austerity years.”
In early February, scientists were keenly aware that the UK needed more testing equipment to offset infections by contact tracing and self-isolation. The source said: “We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime but that didn’t happen.”
This was confirmed by British In Vitro Diagnostics’ Chief Executive Doris-Ann Williams, the main association for testing companies, in saying it was not until April 1st that the government reached out for help. It was again, not until the same date that the government accepted The British Healthcare Trades Association’s offer to supply personal protective equipment.
There was clearly a marked ambivalence about the scientific methods that needed to be utilised to combat this crisis. Alongside this, the Prime Minister continually took breaks, skipped and delegated his work elsewhere. During those crucial weeks in February, Johnson took 12 days for a “working holiday” in Chevening. The pandemic loomed and he told his aides to cut briefings and memos short. It was not until five weeks after the first COBRA meeting that Johnson finally took the chair.
The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was accused of fearmongering when he called Johnson a part-time Prime Minister for his laissez-faire approach to the virus and winter flooding in the UK. Equally, British establishment media were cheerleading for this ambivalence. ITV’s Robert Peston even encouraged readers to get on board with the proposed ‘Herd Immunity’ strategy that would have led to casualties of approximately 400-500,000 people. Moreover, when the government made a u-turn on that strategy, instead of criticising Johnson’s plan, BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg highlighted the magical potential for the science to change so drastically.
Of course, the emerging sentiment that the government might bear some (a lot) of the guilt for the crisis is welcome. ITV’s Piers Morgan has recently made a name for himself as the new leader of the opposition on Twitter, due to his scathing criticisms of the Government’s response. This change of tone is far too late as we are now seeing the worst death toll in Europe.
We needed a government that would prioritise the welfare state, the NHS and emergency planning instead of austerity and cost-cutting measures. However, we also needed our establishment media to hold the government to account on the reality of this crisis, inform the public on the science, and treat this crisis with the seriousness it demands. We have again, been failed on two fronts. Crucially, the government failed to provide leadership when the public needed it.