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The Prime Minister

Tuesday 1 December 2020


Months of mixed messages and local lockdowns left the country bewildered. We are living in the Disunited Kingdom – where even Boris got the rules wrong at one point. Is the Prime Minister asleep at the wheel – or is he still ill?


The prime minister’s resounding election victory looked like a suit of armour back in December 2019, but Covid has stripped it away. Boris Johnson has survived his own bout with the virus, but the awful death rate in the UK and his government’s constantly changing response to the pandemic has put his political life on the line. There’s little doubt that 2020 has been one of the most challenging years for a UK premier since the war, but the question still has to be asked; has Johnson failed the UK?


What happened to Boris?

Johnson tested positive for Covid on 27 March, probably as a result of “shaking hands with everybody” during hospital visits and press conferences. The outbreak within Downing Street, during which he became seriously ill, exposed a chaotic, amateur state apparatus apparently unable to meet the challenge of the number of infections in the rest of the country.


How confusing was government communication about coronavirus?

Advice has had to be updated on the basis of developments in the pandemic, better understanding of how the virus spreads and changing capacity to test and trace infected people. So the source of the confusion is partly the pandemic itself, rather than the government’s communications strategy. 

Any prime minister might have struggled; it’s been very hard to look competent in this environment. Even so, Johnson has frequently changed tack:

The UK government as a whole has been accused of failing to adopt a consistent stance. According to The Health Foundation COVID-19 Policy Tracker it has issued 136 seperate policy updates on social distancing and other measures to contain the virus since 10 January.

The pressure to be firm, fair, concise and comprehensive all at once has bred a public messaging tornado that left many people unclear what the rules really were – and whether they all had to be followed to the letter.


How many people understand the lockdown?

In July, fewer than half of people in England reported a “broad understanding” of the lockdown rules. In March this figure was much higher, at 90 per cent, when the instructions were fresh and relatively clear. In November this figure stands at 51 per cent.


How disunited is the UK over the government’s handling of coronavirus?

England under Johnson’s leadership has consistently reported lower levels of confidence in government than the devolved nations.

If you put a horse back to work when it’s injured it will never recover.”

Sir Humphry Wakefield, reported in The Times diary, 25 August 2020

“Ministers and other people say to me that he feels and looks unwell.”

Source, The Times, 19 September 2020

“A less generous theory is that the disease actually damaged his brain in some way.”

Toby Young, The Spectator, 19 September 2020

“He is lonely, he is ill. It would not surprise me if Boris quit, there is no win for him here, everything is a loss and it’s piling up.”

Piers Morgan, 21 September 2020

“Even now he still has good and bad days.” 

Family friend, The Times, 22 September 2020


Further reading

More than half of British public don’t ‘fully understand’ current coronavirus rules 

Coronavirus: Public confidence in government’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic drops – survey 
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