When Boris Johnson addressed the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers by Zoom on Friday, the MPs unmuted their microphones so they could bang their tables in applause. But this high-tech display of obsequiousness could not conceal a growing unease within the party and inside the government itself about its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
A slide showing an international comparison of deaths from the virus was dropped from the daily Downing Street press conference this week as Britain's official death toll surpassed that of every country in the world apart from the United States.
Ministers and government health advisers say it is too early to compare Britain’s death toll, which stood at 33,998 on Friday, with others because no country’s statistics will be complete until there is clarity about total excess deaths throughout the epidemic.
But whether Britain’s toll is the second, third or fourth highest in the world, the government’s performance during the crisis has compared unfavourably with that of most of its European neighbours.
"They're in a panic because they're making it up as they go along," said Allyson Pollock, a consultant in public health medicine and director of the centre for excellence in regulatory science at Newcastle University.
Pollock is a member of the Independent Sage group of scientific and medical experts who this week published a report that criticised the government’s handling of the epidemic and called for an expansion of public health capacity to identify, isolate, test and treat all cases.
Britain abandoned community testing and tracing on March 12th, limiting it to hospitals. The following day, chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance outlined the government's strategy.
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it,” he said.
The policy changed again on March 23rd after modelling by Imperial College's Neil Ferguson suggested the mitigation strategy described by Vallance could lead to a quarter of a million deaths. Ferguson did not model a South Korean-style strategy based on intensive testing, tracing and isolation, and Britain went into lockdown.
"We've been told to stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. Why should we be told to protect the NHS and save lives? I mean I was always told that that's why we have an NHS and public services – to protect us and to save our lives," Pollock said.
“But the government hasn’t done its part, which is it hasn’t actually protected the very vulnerable whose lives they were meant to be saving, and that’s people who are older, in nursing homes and social care.”
Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week suggested that 40 per cent of Britain’s coronavirus deaths have been in care homes, but until March 12th the official guidance said there was little risk there. Pollock believes the government should have taken control of the situations in care homes in early February and imposed national standards on the mostly privatised sector, obliging them to improve pay and conditions and increase staffing levels.
“The clue to all this social care is you have to double and triple your staffing. They’ve done that in ICU but they haven’t done it in nursing homes. So you have to double and triple your staffing because that’s the best way of doing infection control so that you have the same people looking after the same residents,” she said.
Two months after it abandoned testing and tracing in the community, the government is poised to resume it next week with the launch of a contact tracing app and the hiring by a private company of 18,000 call centre operatives. But Pollock argues that instead of trying to deal with the epidemic through centralised command and control, it should swiftly restore the public health capacity of local authorities.
“An epidemic is made up of thousands of small outbreaks, all going on at different rates and pace and height in different parts of the country. And I always use the fire brigade analogy. If you had a fire in Dublin, you wouldn’t be calling the fire brigade in Westminster. So you have to have your local outbreak team. And the advantage of local outbreak teams is they understand their local communities,” she said.
"We're a much more heterogeneous population than Ireland. So what goes on in the Orthodox Jewish multigenerational community in Brent where there was a huge outbreak and Tower Hamlets with the Muslim community is very, very different from what's going on in white elderly Devon or Exeter or Eastbourne and [there's] different sets of needs. You've got overcrowding so you might have to think about quarantine or isolation, what support you give people. You've got language issues. It begins and ends with the community."
Despite the death toll, the shortages of testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) and the muddled messaging surrounding the easing of the lockdown, the Conservatives remain buoyant in the polls with a 19-point lead over Labour. Johnson's personal popularity soared after his hospitalisation with the virus and he retains a net favourability rating of 22 points.
This week, however, Labour leader Keir Starmer's net favourability rating surpassed the prime minister's and recent polls show the public mood souring on the government's handling of the crisis. Ninety-six per cent supported the imposition of the lockdown, according to an Opinium poll. But YouGov this week found the public almost evenly divided over the new rules announced by Johnson on Sunday and most Britons think the country is doing less well in the crisis than any other except the US.
Political commentator Steve Richards, whose book The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May was published last year, believes the current crisis is even more testing than the 2008 financial crash under Gordon Brown, and Johnson is uniquely unsuitable to deal with it.
"Here was a figure elected by his party because of Brexit, winning an election because of Brexit, choosing a cabinet because of their views on Brexit, choosing a chief adviser in Dominic Cummings to preside over a kind of shallow but angrily espoused domestic revolution – reforming the BBC, the civil service and all the rest of it – suddenly faced with something that he hadn't by definition thought about, prepared for, planned for. And just objectively, whatever you think about him on other fronts, he has been wholly unprepared for this," he said.
“This is about a command of detail, capacity to see that if you move in one direction there are 30 consequences that also need to be thought through. Now, those all sort of played to Brown’s strengths as a workaholic, obsessed with detail. Not even his closest admirers would say that is one of Johnson’s strengths.”
The government has sought to identify the capacity of the National Health Service to deal with the epidemic as the central measure of its success in addressing the crisis. But Richards believes that the polls tell a story that should rattle nerves in Downing Street.
“What is so interesting about this crisis is that at one level you have to be a scientist to understand it but on another, it is a much more accessible crisis than the financial crash or Brexit.
“Elements of this are simple to understand. I think the high death rate, the promises to sort out PPE, the pledges on testing that aren’t met, all of these things I think are beginning to permeate now and polls suggest that the ratings, although still high, are falling, and it’s quite interesting that Starmer’s personal ratings are going up a lot,” he said.
“So I think that protective shield that helped at first, that the NHS was not overrun, is proving over a longer term to be a flimsy defence when there are so many other accessible statistics around to show that things are going wrong.”
After weeks on the defensive, there were signs this week that Downing Street is preparing to go back into attack mode and ramping up the rhetoric again on Brexit. But although Johnson’s advisers remain buoyed by the polling they pore over obsessively, Richards says it is hard to see how the coronavirus story ends well for the government.
"It looks as if, however it's portrayed, that the UK will have one of the highest death tolls in Europe. And the economic consequences are going to involve so many tough decisions that I think it's quite hard," he said.
"And here there is another parallel with 2008: that even though some credited Brown with avoiding a sort of depression, the decisions he had to take afterwards, spending cuts, tax rises and so on, were unpopular. So someone like Rishi Sunak is hugely popular now as he gives money away but he will have to take tough decisions, which people won't like. So I think it's quite hard to see how this becomes a good news story for the government."