The United Kingdom has long had a reputation for competent, stable government with the ‘Westminster model’ of parliamentary democracy widely influential round the world. Yet, the response of Boris Johnson’s administration to the coronavirus crisis has been a master class in sloppy decision-making and chaotic public communications.
To be sure, the pandemic is one of the most complex challenges facing the world in recent decades, and would tax the initiative of the most able government. Sadly, however, the UK administration under Johnson’s leadership has been remarkably sluggish and sloppy compared to other nations from New Zealand in the Pacific to South Korea in Asia, and Germany in Europe.
Most recently, the Johnson government’s incompetence has been manifested in a fiasco over end-of-year student grading. In a different era, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is likely to have resigned given the scale of the debacle which saw the government embracing a flawed computer algorithm to ‘predict’ test results rather than relying on teacher assessments which, while imperfect too, are more suited to the task in hand in the absence of exams which were cancelled this year.
Part of the reason that Williamson has not resigned, or been sacked, is that the government is facing next week into another potentially big education challenge with Johnson urging students to go back to school after an almost six-month absence from the classroom, the longest since the Second World War. The prime minister is aware that many parents are reluctant to allow their children to go back, for safety reasons, and he has staked his credibility on this happening.
School grading fiasco
Yet, given the possibility of political embarrassment on this issue too, some critics assert that Williamson is being kept on as a potential ‘fall guy’ in coming weeks. There is probably some truth in these claims, but he is also being maintained in post — for now — for wider reasons, including the fact that the former chief government whip could be a powerful, disruptive force against Johnson if he leaves the cabinet and returns to the Conservative backbenches.
The school grading fiasco is only the latest that has hit the Johnson team since the onset of the corona crisis. No nation has been spared entirely from its consequences, but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have collectively suffered more than most.
With the United Kingdom also facing the prospect of a second shock from any failure to agree an EU trade deal, there is simply no more room for muddled corona crisis thinking.
Not only is the United Kingdom on track for one of the highest per capita mortality rates in the world, it is also forecast to be the worst-hit economically of any G20 state. To be suffering so badly on both of these counts indicates the scale of the policy failure emanating from Johnson’s government.
With the government’s ‘official’ UK death figure from the virus now over 40,000, having been revised down by statisticians, the independent Office for National Statistics (ONS) regularly releases data showing the true number of deaths is significantly larger. According to ONS, for instance, the United Kingdom had in the three-months till June 19 the largest absolute number of ‘excess deaths’ in Europe at around 65,000, many (but not all) coronavirus-related.
‘Herd immunity’ approach
Johnson, who sadly nearly succumbed to the virus himself, has been the biggest culprit behind the policy mess. While it is too much to blame him entirely for the fiasco, his approach to making decisions has too often been confused; and his skill set (big picture optimism and ‘hands-off’ rather than details-focused and ‘hands-on’) and style (flamboyant and undisciplined) is not well suited to the demands of the pandemic era.
The flux and incoherence at the heart of UK policymaking began as soon as February. It was then that the Johnson team flirted with a pandemic strategy styled by some as a ‘herd immunity’ approach, while much of the rest of the world imposed restrictive measures more quickly and tested many more people.
Thus while he promised the nation in March that he would “send the virus packing” by June, and then last month said the nation would be back to “normality” by November, both assessments are too optimistic. Instead, latest data indicates the highest rate of infection estimated since mid-May, and the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is no longer confident that the R rate of transmission is below 1 for the first time since the peak of lockdown. The country is therefore preparing for what could be the most challenging Autumn and Winter of modern times, with growing fears of second spikes as the colder weather returns.
As well as policy confusion, there has been chaotic communications too. One of the more recent examples of this came a few weeks ago when Health Secretary Matt Hancock made an announcement — via Twitter rather than a press conference — giving some 4 million people across the North of England less than three hours of notice that they must endure tighter restrictions.
With the United Kingdom also facing the prospect of a second shock from any failure to agree an EU trade deal, there is simply no more room for muddled corona crisis thinking. It is high time for the Johnson team to raise its game and embrace an approach better suited to avoid significant further deaths plus wider economic woe at a time when both risk intensifying.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics