The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s second wave: made in Downing Street
The prime minister’s over-promising and under-delivering has to end. If he tries to spin his way out of the looming coronavirus disaster it will cost the country dear
The country is facing a second wave of coronavirus because the government is losing track of the outbreak’s spread. Testing capacity is being outpaced by an exponentially growing epidemic. Without testing the people who need testing, the authorities can’t see where cases are rising. With visibility of the disease’s extent obscured, its transmission is harder to slow. A second wave of Covid-19 could be more serious than the first. The NHS, still reeling from the disruption of the last few months, is dealing with a backlog of patients. Winter is coming and with it the possibility of a joint flu epidemic and Covid pandemic. Britain has been put in a dangerous place by Boris Johnson’s administrative failure.
The government messed up its Covid response in the first wave of coronavirus, making blunder after blunder. Britain had no mass testing capacity and was forced to impose a damaging lockdown that plunged the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. England recorded the highest excess death rate in Europe. Ministers have had months to put things right. A new testing system was devised. The rationale of coming out of the national lockdown was that a functioning test-and-trace system would help the government to spot and suppress local outbreaks. This was the “whack-a-mole” strategy. But it only works if you know where the moles are.
There was little doubt that there would be a problem in autumn and winter. But we are barely out of summer and Mr Johnson’s system can’t cope. If the government can’t provide enough tests for people at this point in September, when ministers knew schools would be returning and have been actively encouraging people back to work, how will it achieve its “moonshot” ambition to process millions of tests a day? Mr Johnson, and his cabinet, do not look remotely up to the challenge. Instead of being open about the issue they alternate between being furtive, evasive and defensive. Public trust in the government’s Covid response is ebbing away: almost two-thirds of those polled think ministers have handled it badly.
The country has no option but for the government’s scheme to work. If it does not then we will face another damaging national lockdown. There needs to be a reset from the government in the way it acts and speaks. The over-promising and under-delivering by ministers has to end. One cannot spin one’s way out of disaster when there is a breakdown in frontline service delivery that affects millions of people’s lives. People are not at fault for demanding tests when they have been told to ask for them.
It is painfully clear that there has been a serious failure of the private laboratories that ministers created on the hoof to rapidly scale up testing operations. Ministers built the labs to run with itinerant PhD workers, who predictably caused staff shortages when they returned to their universities. The government needs to come clean about the mistakes it has made and demonstrate it has the leadership to put them right. A new political and communications strategy will be required to move the country on. Caution, not overconfidence, should be the order of the day.
Time is running out for Mr Johnson to show he recognises the danger ahead and is willing to prepare voters for difficult times. The government needs a humbler and more realistic way of going about things. Belief in a form of national exceptionalism led to lack of preparedness. Mr Johnson’s excessive self-confidence telegraphs hubris about the country’s ability to withstand a public health crisis. This may have been electorally successful but it has led to overreach and complacency. Britain’s painful Covid-19 experience ought to put a premium on competent and decent government. Yet Mr Johnson stokes Brexit’s politics of resentment to trump the politics of problem-solving. The country will pay a high price unless he changes course.