Analysing the pattern of Boris Johnson’s indecision about coronavirus
Amy Butterworth examines the Trumpesque ambiguity with which the UK has faced the COVID-19 crisis with cynicism, eliminating its head-start given by other disadvantaged European nations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has played the “bumbling fool” throughout his political career. His ongoing role as ambivalent jester may have succeeded in elections, but his indecision, procrastination and see-sawing in the United Kingdom’s battle against Covid-19 has worried the nation. At a time of crisis, his tactical buffoonery has only succeeded in exacerbating concern, and potentially endangering more lives than necessary.
His recent contraction of the virus may have been the final straw for some concerned about the fate of the country. He underwent testing after having developed “mild symptoms – that’s to say, a temperature and a persistent cough”, he explains in a video released on Twitter. With his signature dishevelled bravado, he once again urges the British public to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”. However, some think his own actions towards personal preventative measures show a severe lack of practicing-what-he-preaches, The Guardian describing it as a “nonchalant complacency”.
He had previously been accused of failing to keep the WHO-recommended distance from other senior figures, and garnered criticism for carrying out parliamentary duties such as prime minister’s questions, which many felt appeared hypocritical with his much-repeated mantra, “stay at home”. More damning moments of insincerity were his continuing to shake hands with coronavirus patients (although this was weeks before both the lockdown and his testing positive), and his declaration that he hoped to see his mother on Mother’s Day, despite the official advice that over 70s should avoid all social contact (he of course meant via Skype, although that was unclear to the public).
Like the masks, Johnson attempted to tape over the gravity of COVID-19, blatantly ignoring the warnings from countries weeks ahead of us.
Johnson’s initial downplaying of the virus played out all too similar to that of the United States’ equally duplicitous president Donald Trump, who from March had been downplaying the numbers (“only 129” he wrote on Twitter), as well as lying that they had “very few cases” compared to other countries. Although Johnson did call for the virus to be considered top priority on 28 February (arguably far too late), this was only done after his two-week holiday with fiancée, and an emergency Cobra meeting postponed till after the weekend – a lovely time to take the weekend off (there had already been one death attributed to the virus in Britain). The motivational WWII slogan of “keep calm and carry on” wasn’t going to work in this scenario, and Johnson’s blasé strategy that we should strike a balance between “[taking] it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures” and a full-scale lockdown was not going to cut it.
While other countries were implementing measures of self-isolation and lockdowns, we were being advised that “the best thing you can do is to wash your hands with soap and hot water while singing Happy Birthday twice.” Richard Horton, an editor of the Lancet medical journal, remarked that we should have learnt from seeing China and Italy contend with the virus: “we had the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries” he says. “For reasons that are not entirely clear, the UK missed those signals. We missed those opportunities”.
Johnson and the UK government were most heavily put under scrutiny when they posed to the public their herd immunity strategy; it is typically carried out through vaccination, whereas the UK’s strategy was deliberately putting the lives of the most vulnerable at risk due to the NHS surge capacity. It would have been a matter of turning people infected with the virus back and choosing who lives or dies. They have backpedalled to no success, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated “herd immunity is not our goal or policy”, but amidst the soft guidance, it appeared to the nation that this was the path we were taking – one doomed to fail.
Johnson eventually called for lockdown on 23 March in a televised speech that garnered a viewership of 27 million. But irrespective of how perfected it was in tone and mannerisms (you can’t help but notice a Churchillian vibe), I could not quell the feeling that more should have been done weeks ago. The government are being careful to not make it seem as if they have done a complete 180 regarding the trajectory of combating the virus. In fact, chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, stated that the only difference between the two strategies was a “semantic” one. I’m dubious. Johnson and his advisors have justified his initial indecision by saying that they could not go from zero reaction to immediate lockdown, they worried about “behavioural fatigue” and so the phasing in of “draconian” measures was the government’s considered approach to being more palatable for the nation. I’ll let you decide if you’re convinced by their strategy.
Now, most notably, the dialogue of testing and equipment is the most alarming issue. While Johnson was continuing his happy-go-lucky attitude towards “squashing the sombrero” of the virus’s peak (he actually said that), the NHS was (and still is) suffering with a severe lack of equipment. First it was revealed that GPs were being given expired masks with a new “2021” use-by date taped over, then there was the realisation of the severe lack of intensive care beds and worrying shortages of “ventilators, masks, suits and gloves”.
But irrespective of how perfected it was in tone and mannerisms (you can’t help but notice a Churchillian vibe), I could not quell the feeling that more should have been done weeks ago.
The building of NHS Nightingale Hospital at London’s ExCel centre was a success, but meanwhile, testing is of big debate. Other countries such as South Korea, China and Singapore have embraced testing, and the severe lack in Europe has worried the WHO – despite the UK’s intention to quadruple its previous pledge and hopes to test 100,000 a day, we are still severely lagging behind, only just “breaking the 10,000 mark on 2 April”. Johnson has acknowledged these severe shortages (unlike the US’ own bumbling fool stating “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators”) but regarding testing, the numbers are not adding up.
Like the masks, Johnson attempted to tape over the gravity of COVID-19, blatantly ignoring the warnings from countries weeks ahead of us. As we reach the date in which we should start seeing a decline in reported cases thanks to self-quarantining measures, the UK waits with baited breath to see if the government acted fast enough. For Boris’s sake, and the country’s, I sincerely hope we have.