Coronavirus: Mistakes have cost lives, but what Johnson does next will define his COVID legacy

From the intensive care unit to the maternity ward, the prime minister’s colourful personal life has helped create the impression that the UK has handled “phase one” of the coronavirus crisis chaotically.

In truth after the horrific shock of the unforeseen pandemic, events in this country have been almost predictable.

I doubt they would have been much different whoever was in charge or whichever political party they belonged to.

Irrepressible components of the national DNA have determined what has happened to us so far.

What happens next though will test Boris Johnson’s judgement profoundly. He is wisely taking his time before the deadline of 7 May, a week today, when, by law, he will have to explain how he plans to lift the country out of lockdown.

First let’s look back at ‘phase one’ which is now entering its seventh week and is not yet over. We have learnt again that the NHS is a world class public health service when it comes to responding to an emergency, populated by dedicated, skilled and compassionate staff prepared to risk themselves for the benefit of others.

We have also seen that a UK government of any colour will find the cash to support it when a crisis hits. Normal times are different. The NHS has never been able to invest comprehensively either in preventative medicine or in building up spare stocks for when calamity strikes – hence the shortage of PPE and ventilators in this case.

Conversely, high mortality of residents and staff, and what can at best be termed confusion about access to tests, PPE and hospitals has confirmed that the care sector is indeed a Cinderella service.

Compared to the NHS, the hotchpotch of public and privately supported care homes are underfunded and often overlooked. This was known before COVID and it can only be hoped that it will be addressed qualitatively after the outbreak.

The UK was also slow to impose a lockdown. Perhaps a week late, with hindsight. It seems clear that this delay cost thousands of lives. But this was doomed to happen. Like the mayor in Jaws, who Boris Johnson has often cited as his political hero, politicians will nearly always be reluctant to shut down economic activity until they really have to.

What Mr Johnson jokingly referred to as “the inalienable right of an Englishman to go to the pub” also comes into play. In free societies governments are naturally reluctant to curb their voters’ liberties. They also worry, as they did this year, about the extent to which the public will obey and make such measures effective.

It should be noted that neither the scientists advising the government nor opposition leaders were calling for a lockdown until the government actually put it in place. To do so would have taken an exceptionally courageous and convincing leader and they are usually in short supply.

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