Boris Johnson defends Covid record after summer of U-turns
Figures fail to back up prime minister’s claim that people are returning to work in offices ‘in huge numbers’
Prime minister Boris Johnson returning to Downing Street on Tuesday after holding the first weekly meeting of the cabinet since the summer recess. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
Boris Johnson has defended his government’s record after a summer of U-turns that has seen his personal poll ratings slump amid unease on the Conservative backbenches.
The prime minister told his cabinet that they deserved credit for leading the national effort to defeat coronavirus, which has claimed more than 41,000 lives in Britain.
“In the last few months we’ve been sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question. And I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change, but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out, and we have not been blown off that course.
“And of course I think there is still going to be some turbulence ahead, and of course things are still going to be difficult on the economic front, and of course we still need to get this disease absolutely out of our systems. But I am absolutely confident that, if we continue in the way that we have, that there will be calmer days, brighter days and calmer seas ahead of us.”
During the past three weeks Mr Johnson’s government has abandoned its centralised approach to contact tracing in favour of a regional approach, reversed course on GSCE and A-level results to award grades based on teachers’ predictions and changed its advice on the wearing of face coverings in schools.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, health secretary Matt Hancock defended the testing and tracing system, which the prime minister once described as world-beating.
“Well, of course, we learn the lessons, and I talk to my international counterparts including in Germany and South Korea. Actually, compared to international systems...we are now absolutely in the top tranche, and we’re constantly looking all around the world to how we can improve the operation of test and trace.”
Pupils began returning to schools in England on Tuesday in what education secretary Gavin Williamson described as a “massive milestone”, promising to ensure that the process would be as smooth as possible.
Mr Williamson apologised for the distress suffered by students who initially saw their exam results downgraded by an algorithm before the government reversed course on GCSE and A-level results.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government had presided over “a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion” which had caused enormous stress to children, their families and teachers.
“Children and their families should have been the government’s top priority. But for weeks their interests have taken a back seat while the secretary of state U-turned on everything from CAGs [centre assessment grades] to face masks, and let officials take the blame. He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay,” she said.
Mr Johnson claimed on Tuesday that as children returned to school, people were returning to work in offices “in huge numbers”. However, data from Transport for London showed that use of the London Underground on Tuesday morning was down 72 per cent from this time last year, and up just 8 per cent from last week. Bus use was down 53 per cent on last year, and up just 6 per cent on last week.
Downing Street said the government would launch a campaign later this week to encourage people to return to work in offices, and to reassure them that it is safe to do so.