Boris Johnson at cabinet meeting, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article Boris Johnson at cabinet meeting, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The Prime Minister who bungled the first wave of coronavirus cannot be trusted to tackle the second, suggests Sean Ledwith

There was an unwelcome sense of deja vu about today’s Downing Street coronavirus briefing. Just when the country had dared to hope we had seen the last of Boris Johnson appearing alongside his two accomplices in modern Britain’s biggest peacetime disaster, the Prime Minister popped up again to fire off more hyperbolic bluster. This time, it was to launch his so-called moonshot strategy of a massive expansion of testing capability. Unfortunately, for Johnson, his two side sidekicks from the government SAGE advisory body, Chris Whitty and Patrick Valance, almost immediately poured two buckets of very cold water on his suspiciously sketchy plan. Chief Medical Officer Whitty said it would be unwise to put a date on the rollout as “that’s not how science works” and Chief Scientific Advisor Vallance cautioned it would be “completely wrong to assume this is a slamdunk that can definitely happen.” Johnson claims his testing moonshot will be trialled in Salford in the near future. This sounds wearily similar to the notorious trialling of a track and trace app on the Isle of Wight that was quietly binned earlier in the summer.

Stark warning

The press conference was hastily called amid mounting indicators that the UK is on the cusp of another major outbreak of the virus.  Having completely botched the handling of first wave of the pandemic, the Tory government is now threatening to repeat its underperformance as the dreaded second wave emerges.  Late last night, in what was clearly a panic-induced meaure,the government restored major restrictions on gatherings as groups both inside and outdoors are to be limited to six persons from next Monday. This follows a major resurgence of infections being recorded across the UK over the last few days. New daily cases of infections have been approaching 3000 so far this week and prompted a stark warning from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam:

This is a big change. It’s now consistent over two days and it’s of great concern at this point. We’ve been able to relax a bit over the summer, the disease levels have been really quite low in the UK through the summer but these latest figures really show us that much as people might like to say ‘oh well it’s gone away’ – this hasn’t gone away. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t take this incredibly seriously from this point in we’re going to have a bumpy ride over the next few months.

Serial bunglers

The fact that the Tories have allowed Van Tam to make such a sobering pronouncement after effectively gagging him for being off-message earlier in the year reflects the urgency of the looming crisis. Unfortunately, Van Tam, like the rest of the government he works for, is trying to blame the public themselves for the resurgence of the virus, rather than the sequence of mis-steps the government has made in the months since the pandemic dipped.

Egged on by the right-wing press, they encouraged people to go ahead with decidedly risky foreign holidays, subsidised the Eat Out to Help scheme to entice us into restaurants and, perhaps most disastrously, have ploughed ahead with full reopening of schools. The new term is only days old yet already there are a plethora of cases of selected classes and some whole schools being sent home following renewed outbreaks. Education Secretary and serial bungler Chris Williamson’s only response to this situation is to demonstrate that he has completely lost touch with reality with his call for longer school days and weekend lessons

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, earlier this week, had the audacity to claim that teenagers’ alleged ignorance of social distancing could lead them to inadvertently spread the virus and to plead with them don’t kill granny. This from the minister whose criminal irresponsibility in discharging elderly patients back into care homes in the first wave was condemned by a parliamentary committee as an appalling error.


If anyone needed further evidence that there is no coherence of consistency in this government’s pandemic strategy, it is can be found in the authorisation given today for the St Leger horse racing festival to be held in Doncaster this weekend. Johnson apparently sees no contradiction between launching a Rule of Six limit for social gatherings and giving the green light to a sporting event with a capacity of over 6000 people! Local mayor Ros Jones is understandably non-plussed:

It is out of the control of me and the council and personally, I think the risk of Covid-19 infection is too great. We have been coping well in Doncaster, but this could all be put in jeopardy.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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