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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson on the telephone in his office in No 10 Downing Street. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

From the inevitable effects of austerity to the prime minister falling ill, the Tories are going through a rough patch of exposing their own failings, writes Lucy Nichols

Today’s COVID-19 briefing, headed by Michael Gove, was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Boris Johnson has tested positive for the virus – just weeks after he bragged about visiting a hospital and shaking every hand he saw.

Matt Hancock has also tested positive, with chief medical officer Chris Whitty in self-isolation. The infection of these men suggests that they either haven’t been following their own advice, or have reacted too slowly to the virus.

Despite only displaying only mild symptoms, Johnson and Hancock have been tested for the virus (unlike the vast majority of NHS workers). Dr Jenny Harries argues that this is because they play crucial roles in the response to Covid-19, which of course leaves us all wondering what Prince Charles and Idris Elba have secretly been doing to make them eligible for testing too.

According to today’s briefing, the rules around testing for the virus will change in the coming week. Testing is due to be made more readily available for frontline workers, as well as those more vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly or people with underlying health conditions. Though the Prime Minister is more or less out-of-action, it is reassuring to see Gove continuing with Johnson’s strategy of ‘leaving things until it is far too late’.

Over 14,000 people in the UK have tested positive for the coronavirus, and rates of infection are now doubling every 3 or 4 days. More worryingly, the number of deaths from the virus is increasing rapidly. Plans have been announced to build emergency hospitals in Birmingham and Manchester, like the one being built in the ExCel Centre in East London. These will create space for thousands of new hospital beds within the next few weeks, hopefully alleviating some of the pressure on the UK’s massively overcrowded (and underfunded) hospitals.

As important as it is that we wash our hands regularly and stay two metres away from others on our government-approved daily strolls, the fact remains that we still don’t have enough NHS staff to deal with the pandemic. Sadly it is too late to do very much about this – ten years too late. Bringing retired nurses back into their old positions and forcing student nurses into underpaid labour is not enough to undo the damage austerity has done to our healthcare system. Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson clapping for the NHS on Downing Street is more a slap in the face than a show of solidarity – these are the men who have spent their careers fighting welfarism, and until very recently were more than happy to privatise this vital service.

The Coronavirus has done an excellent job of exposing the evils of neoliberalism; the years spent encouraging austerity, privatisation and deregulation have now come back to haunt the Conservative government. We are living in unprecedented and uncertain times. What is certain is that the apathy and inaction of our government must not be forgotten once this is over.

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