The Irish Times view on Britain’s crisis response: A desperate game of catch-up

Years of austerity and Brexit have made it more difficult for the UK to fight Covid-19

The ad for a popular headache tablet was couched in reassuringly authoritative, but facile science – an actor in a white lab coat pointed to three half-filled test tubes and intoned a message about “three active ingredients … one, two, three”.

Until he was confined to hospital, Boris Johnson was that actor – daily, minus the lab coat, but flanked by a chief scientific adviser and a chief medical officer. And a dramatic graph with Alp-like and flattened curves.

The British government’s coronavirus communication strategy has been based on science, science, science. Insisting that its message is simply an expression of the collective wisdom of scientists makes it believable and the unpalatable medicine just about palatable.

More’s the shame, however, that its strategy for dealing with the virus has been patently lacking, with politically inconvenient advice ignored, as an important investigative report in the Sunday Times makes clear.


The paper focused on decision-making at the heart of the government in the “lost five weeks” from January 24th when it was advised at the highest level by its own scientists that urgent action was needed, to the moment when the penny seems to have finally dropped. Five weeks from the first meeting of its coronavirus emergency Cobra meeting, five meetings that the prime minister did not see fit to attend.

"It took just an hour that January 24th lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat," the paper reports. "Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was 'low'." That afternoon his spokesman reassured journalists that the UK was "well prepared for any new diseases".

Two days earlier Imperial College's School of Public Health led by Prof Neil Ferguson, which had already warned that the virus had claimed victims outside China and was capable of human-to-human transmission, now told the government's scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) that infectivity was an alarming 2.6 and possibly as high as 3.5.

The unwillingness to listen was costly. It certainly postponed the acceptance of the need for lockdown for weeks, arguably causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths. And delayed recognition of the urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, ventilators, and tests to detect the infection.

The UK, which had a pandemic preparedness plan, is now playing a desperate game of catch-up made worse by the depletion of emergency stocks by an austerity-fixated government and which was redeploying resources to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.