Boris Johnson and his government are on probation, watched by a public whose mood could turn rapidly and brutally. For now, and on paper, Johnson has the people with him: his poll ratings have surged north of 50%, a feat last managed by a Tory government at the height of the Falklands war nearly 40 years ago. But the wisest heads in Downing Street will not be turned by those numbers. They know that there’s always a “rally around the flag” effect at moments of extreme crisis: when citizens are frightened, they want to believe their leaders have got things under control. That’s why incumbents around the world, even useless and immoral ones such as Donald Trump, have enjoyed an initial corona bounce in their ratings, almost regardless of their actions. At the start of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 Jimmy Carter saw his approval numbers leap from 32% to 61% – only for him to crash to defeat a year later. Johnson will know that one day, and perhaps quite soon, he, too, will be judged.
He can point to some concrete achievements. The opening today of what is a giant field hospital in east London’s ExCeL centre, constructed within nine days, is the prime example. Those who drooled with totalitarian envy at China’s ability to throw up a hospital in Wuhan within a week were adamant that a western democracy like Britain could never match that accomplishment, and they have been proved wrong. Rishi Sunak’s promise that the state will pay 80% of workers’ wages has won plaudits around the world, even if the chancellor has had to return repeatedly to his economic rescue package, tweaking it to catch those groups he left behind first time around. And the government has imposed a national lockdown that has been largely observed, one that might even see a flattening of the infection curve in the next week or so.
All that, though, has to be set against a record that does not inspire confidence, but saps it. It consists of a series of decisions that, for now, the British public has been prepared to forgive, granting its leaders the benefit of the doubt, but which it may eventually find indefensible. Their combined effect can be seen in a single image, a graph with the power to terrify. It shows that the UK death toll is currently higher than Italy’s at the same stage, reinforced by another showing that by this stage of the outbreak Italy had begun to flatten its curve while in Britain the line keeps rising, the number of deaths doubling every three days.
Start with Johnson’s initial reaction to this menace. Recall the smirking insouciance with which he boasted that he continued to shake hands, even when he met people he knew to be infected with the virus. If Britain emerges from this crisis with a higher death rate than comparable countries, that is a Johnson moment that will come to haunt him.
That complacency was formalised in the government’s flirtation with the notion of herd immunity, an approach that some ministers still try to deny was ever policy but which was spelled out explicitly by the chief scientific adviser as recently as 13 March. To be sure, Johnson U-turned on that, ditching mitigation for all-out suppression when he announced the national lockdown 10 days later, prompted in part by seeing Italy engulfed by the virus. But Britons might not wait for the inevitable public inquiry to wonder at the time lost chasing what proved to be a fantasy and to ask how those precious days might have been used instead to prepare for what was coming.
For that time could have been devoted to testing, the failing on which this government is likely to be judged most harshly. On Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock sought to offer an explanation for why Britain so conspicuously lags behind the likes of Germany in this area: Britain does not have the diagnostic industry the Germans have built up over 70 years, he said. But that cannot excuse what has been a litany of mixed messages, crossed wires and broken promises.
Even now, there remains confusion about whether the government accepts the centrality of testing to combating this threat. It was not three weeks ago that the head of the World Health Organization made the case in words of one syllable. The way to fight Covid-19 was “test, test, test”. Yet a matter of hours before Hancock spoke, and even as the prime minister was calling testing the key that would “unlock the coronavirus puzzle,” the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, was on TV arguing that testing was “a bit of a side issue,” compared with slowing the rate of new infections via physical distancing.
Small wonder, then, that while ministers have been on a loop promising to “ramp up” testing, those tasked with making that happen have been tripping over their feet. Note the government’s own animal health agency, which says it could have been running 40,000 human tests a week and has been eager to help, but couldn’t get a straight answer out of Public Health England (PHE). First in touch with PHE back in January, its capacity still remains untapped.
That seems to fit with reports that PHE has been too controlling and centralising, standing in the way of the Dunkirk effort urged by Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse, in which hundreds of the UK’s smaller labs would play the role of 1940’s little boats, doing their bit to test, test, test. There has been confusion – ministers say there’s a shortage of key chemicals called “reagents”, the chemical industry says there’s no shortage – and there has been failure, best captured by the sight of those much-vaunted drive-through testing facilities, in Chessington, North Greenwich or Wembley, standing unused and echoingly empty. Note too the baffling decision that only 15% of tests should be given to NHS staff, a limit that was lifted this week.
When the time comes, the government might try to blame the civil servants and the bureaucrats and, no doubt, there will be plenty of blame to go around. But the government has power – more of it now than at any time since the war – and its duty was to bend the bureaucracy to its will. Hancock wants to convey that he’s doing that, promising 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. But even if meeting that target proves possible, and details are scant, it could come too late, given that those same ministers are warning that the tidal wave will be crashing on our shores very soon.
Sadly, the failings on testing do not stand alone. There has been the scandalous failure to equip doctors and nurses with the protective kit they need. When hospitals are turning to suppliers of medical fetish gear for essential masks and scrubs, you know something has gone badly wrong. The same can be said of watching a Trump administration official mock the UK for having so few ventilators, or of the evidence that our government chose to stand aside from a Europe-wide effort to source those life-saving machines, apparently because to take part would smack of betraying Brexit.
For now, the British public are being patient, but their patience will not be infinite. Hancock will have to make good on that promise of 100,000 tests by the end of this month; the curve will have to flatten. At stake over the next four weeks will be the lives of many citizens of this nation – and the life of this government.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist