Photo: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK from Tim Dennell Flickr photo stream

Boris Johnson looks set to cling to ‘the vaccine rollout’ in an effort to stay afloat. In truth, he failed on COVID.

Boris Johnson survived his no-confidence vote – just. But with over 40% of his MPs wanting him out and two difficult by-elections looming, he still has plenty of problems ahead.

His advisers will already be working on a strategy that plays to the strengths he has left. The problem is, there aren’t many.

He can no longer claim the economy is strong, and even his hard-line supporters accept that help must be offered for the millions living in poverty, or close to it. His much-lauded achievement, getting Brexit done, has been tarnished by lengthening airport queues, worsening red tape, empty supermarket shelves, and the fact that desperate asylum-seekers and migrants are still attempting the dangerous channel crossing.

Given ministers’ recent references to the government’s COVID vaccination success, it increasingly looks like the prime minister hopes to rely on his handling of the pandemic to see off criticism.

But this isn’t a straight case to argue, what with all the evidence of wasted essential medical supplies, government contract cronyism, and the multi-billion-pound test and trace debacle – not to mention partygate.

Johnson is well capable of glossing over all of this, though, and it is highly likely that he will go hard on arguing that the UK has been a global leader in the whole anti-COVID fight.

His opponents will have to be ready for an onslaught of half-truths and misleading claims – but there is one element of the whole pandemic experience that cannot be disguised. This is Johnson’s Achilles heel: his performance right at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Prior to COVID-19, the UK had a very good, expert-led National Biosecurity Strategy for dealing with events such as pandemics, which was published back in 2018. But when COVID hit, Johnson was asleep at the wheel for a crucial six weeks, meaning the chance to get on top of the virus was lost.

At the time, in early 2020, only a few media outlets covered this – openDemocracy being one – but plenty more has been published on it since, as well as detailed evidence submitted to select committees.

Here is a reminder of the sequence of events.

The outbreak began in China in late 2019 and quickly started to spread domestically. By the start of 2020, authorities in Taiwan and Hong Kong were seriously concerned and were taking numerous precautions. These included checking visitors arriving from China – especially from the city of Wuhan, which appeared to be the epicentre – notifying border staff of symptoms, and even preparing isolation facilities to handle any outbreak.

Britain’s then health secretary, Matt Hancock, was not informed of these developments for several days, despite the National Biosecurity Strategy having stressed that early detection of new diseases was central to pandemic control. Meanwhile, Johnson himself was holidaying in the Caribbean and was told about the COVID developments only on his return on 7 January. For all its rigour, the strategy was ignored by the political leadership.

Even by 22 January, when COVID was spreading rapidly in Eastern and South-East Asia, Public Health England announced the risk level to the British public was ‘low’, having just been raised from ‘very low’. Just over a week later, the first case of the virus was reported in Britain.

What is remarkable is that, despite the government’s lack of action, the first detailed report in a UK science journal had been published weeks earlier, in the New Scientist, on the same day that Johnson returned from holiday and was informed of the outbreak. Yet the government did not call its first meeting of the COBRA national emergency committee until 24 January – and Johnson did not even attend.

Market fundamentalism was the priority, Johnson made clear. Any move to focus on COVID had to be opposed.

The UK’s very slow response to the pandemic continued throughout the year. This was largely due to a sharp difference of opinion between policymakers. While chief medical advisers sought to prioritise short-term health concerns, at the heart of government, the economy came first: wealth trumped health and COVID-19 took second place.

The government’s desire to maintain full economic activity was forcefully illustrated on 3 February, when Johnson delivered his first major policy speech since his general election triumph. This was just as the pandemic was starting to spread rapidly across the world, yet his one reference to COVID-19 was blunt, focusing on the far greater importance of maintaining a post-Brexit deregulated free-market economy.

He said: “We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases… will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational.”

Market fundamentalism was the priority, the speech made clear, and any move to focus on the pandemic had to be opposed with vigour. As if to prove the point, Johnson missed the next four COBRA meetings and even found time to head to the countryside with his now-wife, Carrie Johnson, on a 12-day ‘working holiday’, just as the pandemic was taking root across the world.

All of this adds up to the fact that, under Johnson’s leadership, the UK dismally failed to follow its strong biological security strategy, proving lethally slow in responding to the critical situation developing in East and South-East Asia – resulting in many thousands of deaths. This truth is very long way from his claims of victory over the virus, and it should be seized upon by his opponents, political or otherwise. If they do so, Johnson’s notorious speech of 3 February could end up a millstone round his neck. It is one to watch in the coming months.

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