Diagnosed with coronavirus at the end of last month and hospitalised on April 5 with three nights in intensive care, Boris Johnson is edging back to work as Britain’s prime minister just as criticism of his government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis is escalating.
There are glaring gaps in the delivery of equipment to hospitals and care home staff, a lack of clear government policy, and no public debate about how the current shutdown could be eased.
Britain’s record is poor with deaths reaching 41,000, twice the official figures, according to Financial Times analysis. The good news is that it looks as though the death rate peaked on April 8, but deaths outside hospitals in the week ending April 10 were 75% above normal in England and Wales, the highest level for more than 20 years. The figures are high compared with France’s 20,800 and far higher than Germany’s 5,000.
The high rate of deaths and the government problems would seem to herald a political disaster for a prime minister. Boris’s charmed life (from school at Eton to Oxford University and Downing Street), however, is continuing, despite criticism that he set his government on a muddled path and failed to focus in the early weeks of the crisis. His mind at the time was on achieving and celebrating Brexit on January 31, and then, during a 12-day break in mid February, announcing that he was engaged to his partner, Carrie Symonds, and that she was pregnant, while also finalising his divorce.
The Sunday Times published a devastating critique of the government’s failings on April 19 headed, “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster”. The subhead said, “Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra [top security committee] meetings on the virus; calls to order protective gear were ignored; and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.”
The Sunday edition of The Guardian (The Observer) ran a similar story. Two days earlier, the Financial Times nailed the government’s procurement programme of ventilators that are still not adequately available. The FT quoted sources saying that the programme “was plagued by disjointed thinking that sent volunteer, non-specialist manufacturers down the wrong track, designing products that clinicians and regulators so far have deemed largely unsuitable for treating Covid-19 patients.”
Yet the prime minister, having presided over all this before he became ill, is being welcomed back from convalescence, even though his popularity is waning – 47% of respondents in a recent survey said they had a negative opinion of him and a further 17% had a “neutral” opinion.
He is needed because the country is desperate for some sense of leadership at the head of a rudderless, divided and squabbling cabinet that he packed after December’s general election with obedient Brexit-loyalists.
The government’s undoubted current star is Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), one of three cabinet members of Indian origin in the cabinet – his Punjabi grandparents moved to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s.
He is not quite 40 – his birthday is on May 12 – and he has only been an MP since 2015, yet this wealthy former banker and son-in-law of Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of the Infosys IT company, is already being tipped as a future prime minister. Boris appointed him chancellor – to do as he was told by Downing Street – two months ago, replacing Sajid Javid who had refused to kow-tow to Boris and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s disruptive chief adviser.
Since then, and with Boris away ill, Sunak has emerged as one of the most competent of seven cabinet ministers who appear at daily-televised press conferences. He has a modest but forceful way of delivering facts and appealing for co-operation on matters such as social distancing. He was even given glowing praise by his department’s bureaucrats in an FT profile published on April 2. Currently, he is being praised for handing out billions of pounds, but must know that his popularity will be tested in the future when he has to manage the mountains of debt, curb spending and raise taxes.
The non-performer among the Indian-origin trio is Priti Patel, 48, the home minister, who has only appeared once at the TV conferences. Once a high-profile star (and reportedly a friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi), she is being kept out of the front line because her extremely aggressive style of dealing with bureaucrats had put her political future at risk just as the COVID-19 crisis was emerging. It looked as if she might have to resign till the virus swept negative stories about her from daily media headlines. This week, however, she is back in the news because Sir Philip Rutnam, the home office’s top bureaucrat who she effectively forced to resign in February, has accused her at an employment tribunal of unfair dismissal and whistle blowing.
The third in the trio and a rising star is Alok Sharma, 52, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. He is leading the support for companies including small businesses (and also has climate change responsibilities), and appears calm and purposeful at the media events.
All three are close to Boris (as he is generally known) but none is the official stand-in prime minister. The logical choice for that role would be Michael Gove, 52, by far the most experienced senior cabinet member, but he tripped Boris up in an earlier Conservative Party leadership contest and is not trusted. Instead, Dominic Raab, 46, a controversially blunt and not very respected foreign secretary who has limited ministerial experience, was named first secretary in the last reshuffle. That makes him the de facto deputy, which Boris confirmed – with limited scope – when he asked him to stand in “when necessary”.
The rest of the cabinet do not rate Raab highly and he has little if any authority at a crucial time.
Other much more capable and experienced politicians have been banished to the parliamentary backbenches, or even expelled from the party, because they opposed Brexit. Boris is surrounded by people who are loyal to him and none of them dares step out of line, except perhaps Gove who must realise that loyalty is essential if he is to survive.
The Sunday Times article explained how the UK, unlike Asian countries, treated the virus from January as a pandemic form of flu without an appropriate vaccine, so rejected a lockdown that was being introduced in other countries. Instead it followed the usual flu route of accepting widespread illness that would generate immunity (known as herd immunity). Later, it reversed that policy and introduced the current shutdown, now running for six weeks.
There was a lack of focus on building stocks of testing equipment, with the diagnostics’ trade association saying it was not formally approached for help till April 1. There was similar failure to build stocks of gowns and masks for health and care workers in February when they were, and still are, urgently needed.
The government is now facing heavy criticism about the lack of equipment with Matt Hancock, 41, the supremely self-confident secretary for health, in the firing line. He has failed to deliver a target he unwisely set for achieving 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month – the current figure is around 18,000.
It may seem unfair to criticise the government at a time when every country is facing crises, but Britain has been a leader in medical care, especially pandemics, so should have been better prepared. But years of Conservative government austerity with budget cuts, coupled with Boris’s lack of focus and leadership, led to the failure to perform.
Boris is now convalescing at his official country home, Chequers, about 40 miles outside London. He is not yet chairing meetings, even remotely, though he is contacting people and had a conversation with his admirer President Donald Trump on April 21.
What is sure is that he will give the National Health Service a top priority when the crisis is over because, as he has said, it saved him from possible death during his time in hospital.
But he is not the prime minister for a crisis. He hates detail and likes to appoint competent advisers and ministers, leaving them to get on with their jobs while he deals with broad-brush issues, presentation and public appearances.
The question now is whether this crisis, and his own personal experience of COVID-19, will turn him into a focused prime minister who governs. He has the brains, but does he have the stamina?