The Irish Times view on the UK’s Covid-19 response: the price of mismanagement

Boris Johnson hopes the speedy roll-out of vaccines will make the British public more forgiving – or forgetful – of the shambolic handling of the first year of the pandemic

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson meets troops as they set up a vaccination centre in the Castlemilk district in Glasgow on Thursday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson meets troops as they set up a vaccination centre in the Castlemilk district in Glasgow on Thursday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

 

On Tuesday the UK topped a grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, following behind the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. “I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and of course as I was prime minister I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,” Boris Johnson said.

A reckoning with the voters will come in a few years, by which stage, Johnson will hope, the speedy roll-out of vaccines will have made the public more forgiving – or forgetful – of the shambolic first-year management of the pandemic.

Last March the British government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”, a far cry from the latest figures. Today, thegovernment’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) believes another 50,000 could die this year. Johnson has responded to critics at every stage with his characteristic bluster and sweeping assurances that all would be right. Remember the “world beating” test-and-trace system that was ridiculed first, then introduced late, and ultimately ineffective. It is a communications strategy that steadily undermined the government message to follow the science.

The initial lockdown was delayed. In March a senior government source briefed that the Italian lockdown approach was based on “populist, non-science based measures that aren’t any use”, adding: “They’re who not to follow”. There was resistance to mask use, half-hearted attempts to buy PPE, a brief but confusing embrace of the idea that infections should be allowed to run rampant to develop “herd immunity”, and a fiasco over school exams. In September, defying Sage, the government for six weeks delayed a second lockdown, and the virus took off again.

Most serious of all was the initial abandonment of the care sector. More than 26,000 in UK care homes have died from Covid-19 so far. Advice to the sector last February was that face masks weren’t needed, visits were fine, and “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home … will become infected”. Thousands of hospital patients were discharged into care homes amid fears the NHS would be overwhelmed, and the number of outbreaks exploded.

It’s important to note that many governments, Ireland’s included, struggled at various points to manage the pandemic. Many underestimated the threat to care homes and thus failed to give them sufficient protection. Several others were guilty of muddled communications. To Britain’s credit, its vaccine rollout has so far been a success – and that too is a result of policy choices.

Now may not be the time for public inquiries and a thorough reckoning. But it is important that that should happen: in Britain as elsewhere, it will be vital to learn lessons – and to hold leaders accountable for their handling of the emergency.

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