Boris Johnson’s UK government has failed on coronavirus

Boris Johnson’s UK government has failed on coronavirus

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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks outside 10 Downing Street after recovering from COVID-19, London, Britain, April 27, 2020. (Reuters)

It may be too early to draw the final conclusions regarding how the UK has dealt with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, but all the available evidence makes for grim reading and tells of a government that is out of sorts and out of its depth; let alone one that has been arrogant and complacent from day one, with tragic consequences for individuals, families and the entire nation. The reliability of worldwide reporting on the death toll from COVID-19 varies, but the UK’s 41,662 deaths at the time of writing — third only to the US and Brazil in terms of total lives lost to this vicious virus, and probably the worst when it comes to fatalities per capita — is an abysmal record.

How has it come about that one of the world’s richest and most advanced countries, with some of the brightest scientific minds, has been caught so disastrously unprepared? Some of the answers to that stem from historical yet unresolved structural and societal problems. However, the government’s handling of the crisis continues to be extremely disturbing. It began by irresponsibly ignoring the impending danger and its decision to impose a complete lockdown came too late, while the prime minister’s chief adviser blatantly violated the rules he had helped set. The current gradual and stuttering easing of lockdown restrictions is equally troubling.

The original sin was committed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government in severely underestimating the threat posed by COVID-19 and being flippant about it, portraying what has proved to be a highly lethal infective agent as a conventional type of flu virus. The proverb “better safe than sorry” completely eluded them.

From day one, the government’s instinct seemed to be to protect the economy and big business rather than the vulnerable in society, and emotional intelligence is clearly not a trait that many of its ministers, including Johnson himself, have been blessed with. Even if the virus had merely caused a more severe type of flu, it was well known that the elderly and those with underlying health problems would be the most susceptible. While most countries hit by COVID-19 quickly took the lockdown path in order to prevent its spread and protect the most vulnerable, the prevailing view within the UK government was to let the virus spread until sufficient resistance was eventually built up among the population. This “herd immunity” approach was scientifically questionable, morally deplorable, originated in the “survival of the fittest” school of thought, and led to many more unnecessary deaths. Only when it dawned on the Cabinet that the result of enacting a herd immunity policy could be hundreds of thousands of Britons dead and the National Health Service (NHS) overwhelmed to the point of collapse was a strict lockdown finally imposed at the end of March — a number of weeks too late. By this point, COVID-19 had bolted, with tragic consequences. It forced the UK to endure a longer lockdown before some resumption of normal life was allowed.

The struggle to contain COVID-19 was not helped by the fact that a number of senior Cabinet ministers themselves caught the virus or displayed symptoms and so were not working to full capacity, while their PM (who publicly flouted social distancing recommendations) required hospitalization. But, whether they regained or retained their health, neither leadership nor personal example has proven to be their forte.

Although coping with the current pandemic introduced many new challenges to science, governance, society, the economy and the relations between these aspects of human and social existence, it has mainly exposed already-existing flaws in these interactions. For example, under-investment in the NHS has been a regular feature of Conservative governments for many years. Understaffing, a lack of lifesaving equipment and a shortage of personal protective equipment is nothing new; nevertheless, this has been exposed by the current health crisis in the most striking, conspicuous and deadly fashion. The very people (among them many migrant workers) who are looking after our most precious possession — our lives — are the ones we do not protect, we do not reward adequately and, if they happen not to be British residents or citizens and are not earning enough, they will be unceremoniously forced to leave the country. But only after they have saved our lives and nursed us back to health. 

One statistic that should shock us all to the core is that people living in the poorest areas of England and Wales have been twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as those in less deprived areas. In many cases, this means the elderly and those belonging to minority groups, who always suffer disproportionality from poverty and food insecurity, but are even more affected by the current pandemic. This exposes how decades of neglect and deprivation of society’s most vulnerable not only causes suffering, but also kills. 

From day one, its instinct seemed to be to protect the economy and big business rather than the vulnerable in society.

Yossi Mekelberg

In times of crisis, people long for a leadership they can respect and trust, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different in this sense. But the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK shortly after a general election, with many new and inexperienced ministers in key positions, and while the country was still reeling from more than three years of Brexit-related shambles. The total lack of any rapid, decisive or coherent response to the coronavirus and, worse, the discounting of it as a danger, followed by a volte-face and the imposition of a complete lockdown, have not instilled confidence that the government is in charge of events. Instead, we see a government reacting to events rather than planning for them.

Worse still was that one of the key officials leading the demand that we all stay at home, do not see our loved ones or even say a last goodbye as we witnessed lives and livelihoods disappear, was himself breaking the lockdown rules he helped set; and justified his actions with the lamest of excuses tinted with the sheer arrogance that comes with power. When the first measures to ease lockdown were announced, the prime minister delivered a confused and contradictory message, leaving most doubting the extent to which he controls the situation.

It will take a long time to overcome the disastrous impact of this pandemic. Most crucially, the country needs to regain confidence in government generally and the current administration in particular. The present government, however, has failed its citizens miserably and hardly deserves their trust. 

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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