Behind the scenes

Five revelations from inside the UK’s Covid response

Boris Johnson reportedly told advisers that ‘best thing would be to ignore’ initial outbreaks in China

Almost exactly a year ago, Boris Johnson appeared on the nation’s television screens to announce the first UK-wide lockdown in living memory as coronavirus swept across Europe.

The prime minister described a “moment of national emergency” as he sent Britons home for what would turn out to be a year of shutdowns and social distancing measures, and a death toll that far outstripped his scientific advisers’ worst fears.

But behind the scenes, Johnson was not so cautious, according to a newly published damning report by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg. In what Politico’s Alex Wickham calls an “extraordinary and highly revelatory first draft of history”, Kuenssberg reveals the “mistakes the government made throughout the pandemic”. Here’s what we learned.  

1

Slow off the mark

On 31 January 2020, news broke that coronavirus had arrived in the UK and that two patients had been admitted to hospital. Ministers and officials “had already been meeting to discuss the virus”, says Kuenssberg, but Johnson warned that “an overreaction could do more harm than good”.

The PM was heard telling advisers that “the best thing would be to ignore it”, she adds. A senior source told the BBC political editor that there was a “lack of concern and energy” and that “the general view was it is just hysteria. It was just like a flu.”

2

‘I’ve shaken hands with everybody’

The spread of the virus through Europe triggered scenes of chaos in countries including Italy, but “even stopping shaking hands seemed a step too far” for Johnson, Kuenssberg writes.

Prior to the first major coronavirus press briefing, on 3 March, aides reportedly told the PM that “if asked by journalists”, he should say that “people should stop shaking hands with each other - as per government scientific advice”.

But instead, Johnson infamously said that he had “shaken hands with everybody” during a trip to a hospital treating Covid patients. His spokesperson later told the BBC that Johnson “was very clear at the time he was taking a number of precautionary steps, including frequently washing his hands”. 

“Once the social distancing advice changed, the prime minister’s approach changed,” the spokesperson insisted.

3

Covid parties

“It will come as no surprise that the government’s denials that they ever considered a policy of herd immunity were false,” says Politico’s Wickham. A source told Kuenssberg that “there was a genuine argument in government, which everyone has subsequently denied” about pursuing herd immunity. 

There was even briefly talk in government of “chicken pox parties” where “healthy people might be encouraged to gather to spread the disease”, Kuenssberg writes.

That suggestion was quickly shelved, however, as were proposals to pursue a herd immunity strategy. In an article published in The Telegraph in October, Tory MP Neil O'Brien wrote that “mortality rates by age” combined with “the age profile of the UK” meant that trying to achieve herd immunity would result in “around 90,000 deaths”.

 The total number of Covid fatalities in the UK now stands at more than 125,000, according to latest government data.

4

Second wave complacency

In July, “a grinning chancellor delivered plates of Japanese curry to unsuspecting customers at a London restaurant” as part of his Eat Out to Help Out scheme, says Kuenssberg. But behind the scenes, “there were significant doubts about the wisdom of this new mood”.

“We knew there was going to be a second wave," an unnamed cabinet minister told her. “And there was a row about whether people should work from home or not - it was totally ridiculous.”

The mass reopening over the summer - during which holidaying in the UK was permitted - was “the biggest mistake - a rush of blood to the head”, another senior figure said. “The PM has to carry the can.”

5

Senior sourcing

As Politico’s Wickham notes, “Kuenssberg’s piece is full of anonymous quotes from serving cabinet ministers and former senior advisers in the government”. 

No. 10 is probably “pretty confident it knows who’s been speaking”, he adds, even though senior figures are remaining anonymous amid fears about “what happens when they go on the record if there is ever a public inquiry into what happened”.

According to The Telegraph, “a consensus has formed across government that three responses to the pandemic, in particular, were poorly handled” - namely, “the timing of lockdown… allowing mass gatherings to continue and the decision to abandon test and trace”.

Kuenssberg writes that after “12 months of grappling with endless calculations about balancing risks to life, wider health and how the country makes a living”, Downing Street’s decision-makers are “exhausted”.

And “those who made the decisions are all too aware mistakes they made in these past 12 months may have had such a terrible cost”, she adds.

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