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From the file

The government is unwell | Infected, leaderless. How Boris Johnson’s brush with death revealed a lethal amateurism at the heart of government.

Britain’s disease

Monday 15 June 2020

Coronavirus is a vicious illness which has brutally exposed the weakness of the British government. The UK stands alone, suffering damage which is almost without parallel

The coronavirus affects some places and people worse than others. It has affected the UK worst of all.

“We may be in a world once again of British exceptionalism,” one worried observer messaged me a month ago. “We could end up at this rate having both the worst health and the worst wealth outcome in Europe.”

So it has proved. The UK tops the rankings in both death tolls and economic damage.

By the end of last week, 41,662 people had died of Covid-19 in the UK, a higher number than any other country in Europe. In the US, 114,666 people have died, but the UK has had a higher death rate per capita from the virus than the US. Only Belgium has shown a higher death rate per million of population but, if you follow the FT’s calculation of excess deaths – i.e. registered deaths per week by comparison with the weekly average in previous years – then, again, the UK, with 63,681 deaths, has been the worst hit. To put this in context, Britain has lost many more people to the pandemic than it has lost soldiers (just over 7,100) in all foreign wars combined since 1945. And the disease has discriminated: people living in the poorest 10 per cent of England have died at nearly double the rate of those in the wealthiest 10 per cent; death rates have been highest among Black and Asian people, even though pre-coronavirus mortality rates have been higher for White ethnic groups.

The loss of livelihoods is exceptional, too. The OECD anticipates that the UK’s unemployment rate is going to more than double to nearly 10 per cent, a higher rate of increase than any other country in Europe and on a par with the US. Unemployment is expected to hit young people and women disproportionately hard. The UK is set for the largest drop in GDP in 2020, somewhere between 11.5 per cent and 14 per cent, putting it neck-and-neck with Italy and France for taking the biggest hit to the economy.

Historians point out that the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 did not necessarily originate in Spain. Donald Trump has sought to deflect blame from his handling of Covid-19 by branding it the Chinese virus.

But, with each passing week, it’s felt more and more like Britain’s disease – a global pandemic that the UK has made its own. How is it that multiples more people have died in the UK than, say, Germany (8,863), Canada (8,049), Japan (922), Israel (300) or Australia (102)?

As the UK comes back to life, it’s tempting to look the other way. Shops are reopening. The daily toll of deaths has come down. The lower infection rate should mean case numbers are falling too. The NHS has not been overrun. The furlough scheme has kept people in jobs, for now. Bounce back loans have prevented an immediate wave of bankruptcies. The British public has been patient and peaceful. Countless people have shown everyday courage and kindness, saving lives and looking out for each other.

But the fact is that we are once again in an age of British exceptionalism – the coronavirus has taken an exceptional toll on British lives and threatens to deliver an exceptional recession. Why?

The first chapter of this story has already been written. It was a month of inaction.

It runs from the end of January, when the government convened the first Cobra meeting to consider its response to Covid-19, to 2 March, when, five weeks and four further meetings of the Cobra national crisis team later, the prime minister chaired his first Cobra meeting on the pandemic. During that time, as The Sunday Times first reported, Johnson, aglow after celebrating the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January, and his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, spent a couple of weeks over half-term at the government’s stately home at Chevening; meanwhile, the UK’s number of reported cases of C-19 went from zero to 40, and the number globally started soaring towards 90,000.

The second chapter is increasingly the subject of calls for a public inquiry. It runs for the 10 days until lockdown on 23 March. It was marked by indecision.

Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist who shaped the UK’s response to the virus, told a parliamentary committee last week that if the government had imposed lockdown a week earlier, the UK would have “reduced the death toll by at least a half” – i.e. at least 20,000 people’s lives would have been saved. A growing number of lockdown sceptics and amateur epidemiologists question Professor Ferguson’s analysis. Others ask whether he made that argument at the time. But there were critics of the government’s approach back in March.

On the day that Ireland shut schools and banned large gatherings – 12 March – Johnson and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, stoked bewilderment and fear as they held off on lockdown and aired the idea of “herd immunity”. Within hours, there was a queue of critics: The World Health Organisation worried about the UK’s approach, 229 scientists sent an open letter to Downing Street saying they were risking more lives than necessary, and Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said the government was “playing roulette with the public”. The UK went into the pandemic with a three-week lead on Italy; within a matter of days, Johnson’s indecision had squandered that advantage.

The third chapter stretches over six weeks in which Downing Street was stricken with infection. It started on 27 March, when the prime minister tweeted out that he had “mild symptoms” of coronavirus, and it continued until 10 May, a Sunday evening when he made a televised address to the nation.

No. 10 Downing Street turned out to be a superspreader unto itself. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced that he had the virus on the same day as the prime minister. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, headed up to Durham that evening, as his wife was unwell and he fell sick a few days after – even if the whole story was only admitted nearly two months later. Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary in charge of the UK’s civil service, also went down with Covid-19, although the public was only informed six weeks afterwards. Sir Edward Lister, the prime minister’s chief strategic advisor, has been frequently absent from Downing Street, but it’s unknown whether he has been off sick. Rumours continue to circulate about who in Johnson’s Downing Street team – and, in fact, who else around the cabinet table – has had symptoms or felt the need to self-isolate.

Downing Street has not offered up the details of who’s been infected and when. When asked, it’s stonewalled. Normally, it might make the case that the health of politicians is a private affair. But in the midst of the C-19 crisis, it’s mattered to the national effort to know who’s on deck. It’s mattered to those in the government, too: even within Whitehall, there’s been uncertainty about who’s been infected and how their health has affected their work.

The prime minister’s sickness has revealed a great deal about how his Downing Street works. His cabinet and staff are loyal, but they are not old friends nor long-standing comrades in arms. After he fell ill, he was largely left alone to get better. His food was left on a tray outside his door. No-one seemed to have his back: there were no special efforts made to safeguard the prime minister’s health until he was hospitalised and it dawned on Downing Street that the UK could be first country to see its head of government succumb to the coronavirus.

In the prime minister’s absence, many people might have expected a power grab. In fact, the country was left leaderless. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, took responsibility, but he did not take control. The country that had voted overwhelmingly for Johnson in December soon discovered that his team struggled without its star player. Johnson, it emerged, does not really have a second in command. As the death toll in care homes started rising and the reality of hospitals moving old people into the social care system emerged, the government was first unable to acknowledge the problem, then struggled to address it. Rishi Sunak, just over a month into his new job as chancellor, appeared three times at the Downing Street press conference in that six weeks, as the economy was collapsing at the fastest rate on record. Without Johnson there, leadership in Downing Street became a merry-go-round embodied by ministers taking turns at the podium for the 5pm press conference.

When Johnson survived the night in intensive care and was not intubated, there was relief in Downing Street – and across the country – as everyone realised how close it had come and that he would make it. After that, decisions were delayed until Johnson came back to work.

These decisions ranged from economic support beyond the furloughing scheme to bringing in outside expertise to introduce track and trace; from planning for a staggered restart of the economy to the reopening of schools and supporting universities; and from coordinating with the devolved nations of the UK to the “Stay Alert” messaging to mark the next phase of dealing with the pandemic. Government ministers and departments worked on plans and waited for Johnson’s return.

But when he left hospital, he did not return. Downing Street underestimated the time it would take for Johnson to regain his strength. For weeks after he left hospital and even after his return to Downing Street, Johnson was struggling to get back to full health. Coronavirus patients will tell you that, for a while, they don’t sleep well, that they lack energy, that convalescence can be tougher and take longer than expected. Johnson filmed a recorded statement to the country (a pre-recorded statement was, itself, evidence that Johnson was not entirely match-fit) on 10 May. The message was not just “Stay Alert”; it was that the prime minister’s back.

Since the prime minister’s statement that Sunday night, government guidance, as evidenced by supermarket data and the traffic statistics, has been increasingly ignored. Johnson’s team, as much as it is a team, was forged in the Leave campaign of 2016 and his election of 2019. It won by distilling public sentiment and playing it back to people in pithy messages such as Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done. It came into Downing Street treating government as a campaign. The “Stay Alert” message was also the moment when that campaigning ship ran aground. The restart, it quickly emerged, was going to be much more complicated than the lockdown.

The consequences of that period of infection and leaderlessness in Downing Street linger on. Sunak has been waiting for the prime minister to give him his lead on planning for what comes next. Will a Conservative government make equity investments in struggling companies? What support can it give businesses in sectors such as leisure and aviation, which can’t restart? What is the material response to mass unemployment? How much is Johnson willing to keep borrowing? The Treasury knew the questions; it didn’t have the answers. It started work on a Budget for the first week of July; then pushed it back to the autumn. Instead, there will be a statement from the chancellor next month.

The Brexit team has been in limbo. The Department for Education has been working on a staggered return to school for pupils in September if the virus returns, but little of that has been communicated with teachers and parents. Meanwhile, the four nations of the UK have been pulling further apart: London has been increasingly out of step with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in the coordination and communication of the restart.

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings and his family fell sick. He had driven them to Durham. He had taken them for a day-trip to Barnard Castle. Putting aside the public’s view that he seemed to think the rules did not apply to him, the handling of Cummings’ illness also shed light on the workings of a sick Downing Street. Cummings did not inform his boss, Johnson, before he left town; his Downing Street colleagues were almost all left in the dark. When the story broke, cabinet ministers knew nothing either, but took to the airwaves and social media to offer their support in exactly the same agreed formula of words: they asked people to focus on the national emergency, but behaved like politics as usual.

Little wonder that the period of infection also coincided with the erosion in the prime minister’s approval rating, the slide in public trust in the government and, with the election of Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour party on 4 April, the end of benefit of the doubt.

There has been an understandable unwillingness in this crisis to apportion blame. There’s been a call to pull together. The coronavirus is an act of nature, not the creation of any politician. It doesn’t help anyone to make tired jibes against foppish amateurism or Treasury centrism, civil service inertia or the ambiguity of experts. And there’s no question that politicians have worked relentlessly; they don’t warrant the smears made against their character or compassion.

But Britain has been found out. That is not a position; it’s a conclusion. The excess death statistics and the furlough numbers only hint at the grief and anxiety in the country. The UK is now heading fast into what could be the deepest recession in our lifetimes. Millions of people look set to lose their jobs. There is little prospect of a vaccine in 2020; it’s uncertain if and when there will be one in 2021. The public remains deeply fearful of the coronavirus, even if the infection and mortality rates now warrant a more confident reopening of the economy.

Johnson won an election on that promise to “get Brexit done”, but it’s now clear that the coronashock will be the real test of his government. This is going to need new people and new structures. Johnson’s Downing Street team is not working; he would do well to pull in talents beyond politics and pull in Tories beyond the cohort of Brexit campaigners. The agenda is not going to be dominated by Britain’s relationship with Europe and the world, but by the differences and inequalities within the country. The coronavirus has not changed Britain as much as it has revealed the scale of change that’s needed: the long overdue reform of social care; the real empowerment of metro-mayors and regional governments to tackle geographical unfairness; the resolution of generational inequalities entrenched in the housing market; the overhaul of transport taxes and spending; the investment in a universal digital infrastructure.

The recession has a to-do list of its own: job protection beyond the end of the furlough scheme in October; sectoral support for businesses that cannot reopen; repayment plans for a country and a corporate sector blanketed in debt; a programme of infrastructure spending that’s fast and climate-focused; a slew of measures to stimulate demand; a training and reskilling programme on a scale that meets mass unemployment. The fear in Whitehall is that Downing Street is falling behind in handling the economic crisis, just as it lost time on the health crisis.

Britain’s disease has been a misplaced self-confidence. Things have not gone the UK’s way. In these circumstances, the government’s defensiveness – the robotic repetition that ministers have made that they took “the right decisions at the right time” – makes matters worse. Johnson is going to have to own his government’s mistakes and make some changes, if the next chapter is to be better than the last.

Next in this file

Sick man

Sick man

Infected, leaderless. How Boris Johnson’s brush with death revealed a lethal amateurism at the heart of government

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