The Guardian view on the UK’s Covid-19 response: confused and hesitant | Editorial

Britain’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak carries a risk to the public and to politicians. Time to get a grip

Boris Johnson’s decision to go it alone, in global policy terms, over the UK’s Covid-19 outbreak is being challenged every day – and there is a sense of foreboding that the government is coming up short with its answers. Unlike our nearest neighbours, ministers said there would be no imminent ban on mass events because such a prohibition would do no good. On Friday night it was announced that there would be such a proscription. The government then had to make a U-turn this weekend over its message that the UK is pursuing a policy of “herd immunity”. It was troubling – and reflects badly on ministers – that an epidemiological outcome of mass infection was confused with the dubious policy aim of building resistance in the population.

The muddled thinking at the heart of government will not engender public confidence. The spectre of mass deaths and possible chaos in an under-funded NHS hangs over ministerial indecision. This is the worst public health crisis for a generation and the government must respond to a level of scrutiny of its policies that some ministers have been, perhaps, unaccustomed to. This is especially true of senior figures who had got used to dismissing criticism as unpatriotic. The buck stops in Downing Street and the prime minister must take a lead. Britain has some simple lessons to learn if it is to avoid fatalities. It should follow some basic principles of transparency in keeping the public informed. Publishing the appropriately anonymised scientific advice and data sets that inform government decisions must be a priority.

Voters are expected to take it on trust that ministers are making the right decisions. This faith is shaken when the public sees other countries taking more drastic steps. There may be good reasons for a divergence of policy response, but it is worrying that ministerial explanations do not convince many experts. The government had resisted clamping down hard with strict quarantine and social distancing of the kind successfully implemented in China, because ministers said this would lead to fatigue and allow the virus to make a comeback. Yet on Sunday Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said emergency laws to quarantine people deemed a threat to public health would be put forward. The other model for tackling Covid-19 is South Korea’s massive free testing and treatment, which has corralled the disease and kept new infection rates low. In the UK, government MPs claim the concern is that the testing is inaccurate and that a false result may lead to more infections. If the past few weeks are anything to go by, ministers will be walking back from this too.

The government policy to combat Covid-19 should be guided by science, but is ultimately a political decision. There will be an imperative to avoid an epidemic peak that overwhelms the NHS and to soften the blow to the economy. Both pose ideological questions for the government. How far and fast does it intervene to requisition beds in the private sector to increase capacity is a question that exposes the shrunken state of the health service. A prime minister who has in the past treated business as a nuisance now finds he needs industry to help address the shortage of ventilators. While the headlines scream of a war footing, the government appears hesitant and unsure in the face of a crisis.

Britain’s response compared with the speed and aggression of that pursued by other European countries carries political dangers. The first is that the government reaction does not match the severity of the threat the nation faces. The second is that experts have underestimated the public’s stamina and resilience to maintain discipline in a lockdown – or in a mass testing regime. The third is that the government has not specifically said the state will ensure the burden of the coronavirus outbreak will be borne equally. It might be that relying on the market and appealing to the public’s good nature and understanding is enough. But if it is not, as the historian Jonathan Boff notes, “there is more at risk, from what will look with hindsight like complacency and a lack of concern with equal sacrifice, than Mr Johnson’s political future”. The country needs firm leadership – and needs it now.

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Editorial

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