openDemocracyUK: Opinion

After two years of COVID, Johnson’s priority is still wealth over health

This week marks two years since the first mention of COVID in UK media. Looking back, the government's path was clear right from the start

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 January 2022, 12.01am
Boris Johnson’s government has consistently prioritised the economy over the people
Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Two years ago this week saw the first mention of the new coronavirus infection in the UK media. Now, the Office for National Statistics’ assessment of the death toll is currently 181,000 – one of the worst in Europe. In recent weeks, the daily death toll was stable at around a hundred a day, leading ministers to claim that the worst might be over. It was a convenient position given Boris Johnson’s problems, but this week has seen a very unwelcome surge in the number of COVID-related deaths, with 398 reported on 12 January alone.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s government is under pressure as never before and is pulling out all the stops to present this rosier picture of COVID, even trying to suggest that the UK is something of a success story. This flies in the face of reality, especially in relation to the underlying ideological stance of Johnson’s government that has done so much damage to the country.

The government’s performance in a single month – January 2020, culminating in an extraordinary speech from Johnson on 3 February – set the scene for all that has followed since. Though it is only two years ago, it is easily forgotten, which is why it is salutary to look back on that period now for what it tells us about this government’s view and its response to COVID right from the beginning.

In one sense, the starting point is actually before the pandemic. Back in July 2018, the government had published a very detailed, expert-led National Biosecurity Strategy, which set out how the country should respond to a novel pandemic. In theory, it meant that the UK was very well-prepared, so much so that the World Economic Forum considered it one of the world’s best strategies. Practice showed something very different: a deeply ingrained political belief that the economy had to be the priority.

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The pandemic originated in China, most likely in early November 2019 and was starting to spread within the country before the end of that year. In the UK, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, was first informed about the virus on 3 January 2020, when Johnson was in the Caribbean, enjoying the first of several holidays in 2020. He was informed when he returned to work on 7 January. Government response in the following weeks was slow in the extreme and Hancock reported to Parliament on 23 January that the risk of a pandemic was “low".

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The government did not even hold a meeting of the emergency COBRA committee until the end of January and not only did Johnson not chair the session, he did not even attend. He went on to miss the next four meetings.

Elsewhere, reaction was very different. Governments in Eastern Asia launched emergency responses to the virus before Johnson had even been informed of its existence. According to Taiwan’s London representative, before the beginning of January, the Taipei government was already gearing up for an emergency; it swiftly established a central command centre, the health minister held press conferences almost every day and travellers arriving from Wuhan were subject to tests.

Hong Kong also acted quickly, with a wide-ranging response in the first few days of 2020. On 3 January, it reported news from China that there had been 44 cases of viral pneumonia of unknown origin, 11 of them serious. Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) had brought in enhanced surveillance from 31 December, with doctors told to report to the CHP if they came across symptoms among visitors from Wuhan and a ‘Serious Response Level activated in public hospitals. By 4 January, there were checks of incoming passengers at the airport and the city-centre terminal of the high-speed train line from Wuhan.

There was no excuse for the Johnson government not to know about all this, because a detailed report of the outbreak, including a direct link to a Hong Kong Hospital Authority press release was published online in the UK in the New Scientist on 7 January.

Not only did Johnson not chair the first emergency COBRA committee, he did not even attend

But with little discernible reaction within the UK, things continued to moved fast elsewhere. By 10 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) was warning of a human-to-human transmission risk, and in the same week China confirmed that the virus had spread rapidly across the country. By 19 January, cases had been reported from Thailand, Japan and South Korea. On 23 January a complete lockdown of China’s Wuhan Province was imposed, while in London medical journal The Lancet published the first detailed report of the clinical features of the infection, and the following day there were already 835 cases in China.

Perhaps most surprising of all was that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, of which the UK was still a member, was tracking developments from 31 December, informed the EU Commission on 7 January and posted the first notification of the disease through its Early Warning and Response System on 9 January.

Despite all this, by the start of February the UK government was still resolutely downplaying the significance of the pandemic. The most remarkable indication of this can be seen in Johnson’s comments during his first major public policy speech of the new Parliament, which was given at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on 3 February.

Lauding the UK’s new-found post-Brexit freedom, Johnson devoted just one short section to the unfolding threat, making it utterly clear that it was not only of no significance but was a hugely dangerous diversion:

...we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric. When barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

Boris Johnson

From the heart of government, the message was clear: the economy came first, wealth trumped health. Ever since, this has been a dominant determinant of his government’s behaviour. Put off lockdowns for as long as possible and end them as early as you can, do the minimum in terms of other restrictions called for by experts , and use the private sector whenever and wherever you can.

‘The economy comes first’ has become so embedded in the Conservatives’ psyche that for most of the party’s MPs there is no alternative. Johnson has even had to face opposition from a hundred or more of his own backbenchers to get mild restrictions agreed. The underlying political culture has remained fixed ever since that COVID first emerged and to expect that to end now is wishful thinking.

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