By Ben Norris
On March 23 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a national televised address. In it, he declared that the UK would be heading into lockdown in a bid to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The early response from the Conservative government prior to this announcement had been characterised by a rather sluggish sense of impending crisis; even as case numbers in Italy continued to climb sharply, Johnson was slow to act to bring in controls and limitations. This rectitude was likely a result of behind the scenes lobbying from some of his more business-minded peers, reluctant to sanction anything that would jeopardise the economy. In the fast-moving news cycle, it’s easy to forget that there were senior Tories strongly advocating for a herd immunity approach to containing the pandemic when it first reached the UK – in hindsight, this kind of callous, short-sighted thinking seems to have characterised a good deal of how the government has responded to the pandemic in the year since those first three weeks of restrictions were announced.
Once we realised that this new crisis was going nowhere fast, it would have been opportune for the government to lead by example in keeping its citizens safe. Instead, the first few weeks of what we have now almost nostalgically come to know as ‘lockdown one’ were characterised by issues over PPE provision for healthcare workers and a good amount of mixed messaging over mask wearing. The reason face coverings weren’t made mandatory sooner was likely to avoid a national scramble for PPE when it was in short supply for healthcare workers and support staff, but the uncertainty over whether or not face coverings were effective in reducing the spread of the virus likely confused the public.
No review of this floating question mark of a year would be sufficient without at least touching on Dominic Cummings’ sojourn to Bernard Castle last April. While this is something that’s previously been covered at length, it’s worth revisiting to re-emphasise the extent to which it undermined sweet Boris’s messaging over travel restrictions. If a government advisor could cheat the rules for lockdown and seemingly get away without any penalties, why should regular members of the public abide by them? While the fallout from the Cummings debacle did eventually lead to him leaving his post in December 2020, it’s hard to deny that it removed a chunk of the government’s credibility in coordinating the national pandemic response.
Looking back to last summer’s brief reopening of pubs and restaurants, Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme almost feels like a fever dream; effective at helping hospitality businesses to pick up the shortfalls from months of missed custom without rent holidays, it also precluded a huge spike in coronavirus cases that climbed more or less steadily throughout autumn and into the Christmas period. Whether or not the government’s (temporary) loosening of lockdown restrictions was reasonable is beside the point. Throughout August, the general attitude was that there would be an inevitable spike in cases towards the end of the year and that (as more than one friend said to me) we should ‘make the most of the freedom’. In this regard, the approach of winter took on an ominous significance comparable with its depiction in Game of Thrones; everyone knew it would be bad, and still the government reacted far too late.
Following the anticipated spike in cases in autumn, the November lockdowns introduced in England seemed to at least halt the advance of cases to an extent. However, it was clear almost immediately after these restrictions were loosened and replaced with the short-lived tier system (another fever dream) that cases would spike massively over Christmas. This was arguably Johnson’s biggest failing of the British public: by promising (and then rescinding on) a festive travel window, the false hope of a Christmas together was sold to millions, who made plans and then likely decided to carry on with them regardless of restrictions. The impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated by existing inequalities within the UK, and has been felt disproportionately by those with less economic security.
January represented an oppressively grim nadir for cases, as well as the government’s overall handling of the pandemic. Across the whole month the UK’s death toll averaged over 1,000 a day, significantly outflanking the worst figures from the first wave of infections in March and April. We’re still too close to the immediate event to properly appreciate the scale of the nightmare we’ve been living through: most of us have our hands full just getting from one week to the next. Sioban Baillie, Stroud’s Conservative MP, appealed earlier today for her constituents to “reflect on the events of the last year” and remember all of those lost. In our reflection it might be good to also consider what more could have been done by those responsible for our security and wellbeing.
Another matter quickly worth touching on is the remarkable, almost complete, absence of Keir Starmer from any kind of meaningful discourse or criticism of the government. In years to come he may have the accolade of being the most invisible leader of the opposition ever seen in British politics; for better or worse, the same could never be said of Jeremy Corbyn. While this does come with the caveat that – in a time of crisis – party politics should arguably come second to the wellbeing of the nation, there’s so much more Starmer could have said and done to hold Boris Johnson to account for any one of the shortcomings previously highlighted, rather than simply prevaricating on important issues.
One thing the UK did get right is its vaccine response, which – abetted by the heroic efforts of the NHS – has been an indisputable success story. A highly coordinated and organised operation, it’s been rolled out with almost militaristic levels of precision. As a result the UK has one of the highest rates of vaccination per head in the world, which will hopefully help to safeguard the elderly and vulnerable once businesses do eventually reopen in earnest. However, this response has come at the expense of nations that lack the political or economic capital to reserve any significant supplies of the new vaccines being developed. In this regard, the UK hasn’t so much ‘won the vaccine race’ as it has thrown down its towel on the vaccination sunbed.
The government’s entire roadmap out of lockdown has been developed in the understanding that, in order for the nation to ‘control the virus’ (to quote sweet Boris’s sloganeering), others will have to wait and suffer in turn. Moreover, the situation within the UK would never have gotten as bad as it did if stricter, more thought-out controls had been introduced with more immediacy. Our death toll – currently sat at 126,000 – is one of the highest in the world in proportion to our population. We’ll never know how many of those lives could have been saved if the government had taken a more proactive stance to combating the virus when it first emerged instead of dragging its heels, but as the government tentatively eyes the loosening of further restrictions on its roadmap out of lockdown, Johnson would do well to keep in mind exactly how things turned out last summer.
However the next year plays out, Boris Johnson and the Conservative government must be held to account for their shortcomings.