Boris Johnson’s failure in the coronavirus crisis will have lasting consequences for the future of the UK.


First published in March 2020.


#BorisTheButcher is trending on social media. All politians are vain, you have to have a bit of an ego to want to subject yourself to the kind of scrutiny that politicians come under. Boris Johnson has more of an ego than the rest of them put together. He wants to be remembered in the history books as the great leader who took the UK out of the EU and into the sunlit uplands of Empire 2.0. Instead he’ll be remembered as the bumbling buffoon who presided over a government which many claim has callously risked the lives of millions of British citizens in order to protect the financial interests of the wealthy while it stumbled its way through a crisis.

Despite the Boris the Butcher hashtag, the Conservatives are not delibately seeking to kill off tens of thousands of people. It’s a sign of how low public trust has sunk that the statement even has to be made. The perception has arisen that they have other priorities and seem prepared to accept a degree of collateral damage. That collateral damage would be your elderly relatives, your neighbour with a respiratory problem, and your friend with a compromised immune system.

There is a widespread belief that the British government is risking lives in the hope that enough people will contract the coronavirus so that immunity will build up within the population, acting as a natural brake on the spread of the disease. Unfortunately that appears to mean that even though for the vast majority the illness will be relatively minor, for a significant minority the symptoms will be serious, and for some it will be fatal. That perception has arisen because the British government has been so poor in communicating with the public during this crisis.

The problem in countering this perception is that the British government is basing its strategy more on a hope than on solid science, and is drip feeding information via unattributable “sources” speaking to a favoured few journalists. Other government plans are trialled out behind paywalls in the Telegraph newspaper. Scientific bodies and institutions such as the British Society of Immunology have publicly called upon the government for greater transparency and to release its data. It matters a lot that the British government’s communications strategy has been so poor. It needs to change, and it needs to change immediately.

A government which is releasing information in this way is not a government which is doing a good impression of one which is open, honest, and transparent. The British government tells us that it is relying upon science, but it only creates doubt and confusion amongst the public when scientific experts tell us something very different from what the British government does. It is unfortunately a scientific fact that we don’t actually know for certain whether it’s possible to build up natural immunity to the coronavirus within a population, the key plank of the government’s strategy. There is evidence which suggests otherwise.

The immune system works because your body is able to recognise an infective agent such as a virus or bacterium which it has encountered before, and to rapidly deploy antibodies which will attack and destroy it by latching onto the precise chemical structure of its surface. You get an initial infection, and then you experience an illness during which time your body is learning to recognise the infective agent and to develop antibodies against it. When you recover from the illness it’s because your immune system has learned how to produce antibodies which attack and destroy the infective agent. You then have immunity against the infective agent.

Immunity doesn’t mean that you don’t get infected ever again, it means that when you do get reinfected the immune system is able to remember the infective agent and is prompted to produce antibodies which destroy it before you develop any symptoms and before you develop enough of the infective agent in your system that you can pass it on to others. However the coronavirus belongs to a family of viruses which is highly prone to mutating rapidly, developing subtly different strains which the antibodies of the immune system may not always recognise. These different strains can have surfaces which are different in key ways from those which existing antibodies can recognise, so the antibodies can’t latch onto them and destroy them.

More research into how the Covid-19 virus interacts with the human immune system is needed, yet time is of the essence. That’s why it’s so important to slow down the progress of the disease within the population. Delay gives scientists more time to study the virus and discover an effective treatment against it, without the health service being overwhelmed. Delay gives the health service more time to prepare itself for an influx of patients.

The difference in the way in which the UK government is handling this outbreak and way other governments are handling it is striking. In New Zealand there is a daily briefing from the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Director General of Health. In Ireland there is a daily press briefing by senior medical staff and has been for the past two weeks or so. Every evening the head of the Irish health service holds a press conference with updates of cases, locations of those cases and advice. Leading politicians are constantly visible and are constantly repeating the same simple messages: wash your hands, reduce exposure to those who are at high risk, self-isolate. There are TV programmes talking about self-isolation and the best strategies for managing it, answering many of the questions that people have. How do you self-isolate if you live in a flat and you have a dog? What do you do if an elderly or disabled relative depends on you to shop for them? How do I get my prescription for a pre-existing condition?

[The answers are: 1. Try to get a friend or relative to walk the dog for you. Leave the dog and its lead in the hallway so that you don’t have to come face to face with your friend. They must ensure that they wash their hands thoroughly after walking your dog. 2. Ask someone else to take over shopping duties or use an online shopping service if possible. 3. Regular prescriptions can be collected by someone else on your behalf and dropped through your letterbox, but do talk to your GP about your specific needs.]

That’s the key to a successful public health campaign, the constant repetition of simple messages that are easy to understand and ensuring that people with questions can have those questions answered accurately and easily. Otherwise people turn to social media and its morass of misinformation, misunderstanding, and conspiracy theorising.

Compare and contrast the Irish communications approach with that of the UK. Boris Johnson is absent most of the time. Other senior cabinet ministers have scarcely been seen at all. The British government’s health minister, Matt Hancock, gave an interview to the Telegraph newspaper that sat behind a paywall. Professional and expert bodies have to call upon the British government to release the data behind its decision making. There’s an air of secrecy and an absence of leadership. No wonder people panic buy.

Scotland has been doing far better than the rest of the UK, but the Scottish government would do well to take a lesson from Ireland’s experience. In terms of the political fall out from a crisis, public perception is everything. At this time, above all, we need a government which leads, which reassures, and which is seen to be leading and providing the information that the public requires in order to avoid falling prey to panic. We’re not getting that from Boris Johnson.

His failure in this crisis will have lasting consequences for the future of the UK.🔷


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[This piece was originally published on the Wee Ginger Dug blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 March 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10/Andrew Parsons. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)