Boris Johnson is back – and must end the government’s lethargic response to coronavirus

Editorial: Dithering and delay have cost the country dearly during this pandemic. Now the PM is back on his feet, he must act swiftly

Friday 24 April 2020 18:56 BST
Johnson records a video message at No 10 on Easter Sunday after being released from hospital, before leaving for Chequers
Johnson records a video message at No 10 on Easter Sunday after being released from hospital, before leaving for Chequers (Getty)

Boris Johnson’s great hero Winston Churchill famously attached bright red stickers with the slogan “ACTION THIS DAY” to the most urgent of his commands. The current prime minister needs to do whatever the modern, digital equivalent of that is when he returns to Downing Street in the coming days.

For the government has postponed too many crucial decisions for too long. Ever since Mr Johnson fell ill with “mild” symptoms a month ago, momentous decisions have almost gone by default. Fortunately, the most important of all, the extension of the lockdown, pretty much made itself, so early are we in getting the infection rate of Covid-19 down – “flattening the curve”. Even so, ministers seemed remarkably reluctant to confirm what was obvious to all concerned, leaving it to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make the running. Although Dominic Raab and the cabinet were supposed to be in charge “where necessary”, their authority was unclear. There was, as Tony Blair observed, a “void” in decision-making in this highly centralised administration.

Other life-saving decisions have also been ducked, dodged and fudged. On the three signal failures of policy – testing, ventilators and personal protective equipment – the dithering even when Mr Johnson was still leading the fight turned critical. Apart from the appointment of a couple of “tsars”, the situation remains precarious; though thankfully the public has stuck to social distancing rules and thus not overwhelmed the NHS. Key and frontline workers in the heath service, social care and other areas have also ensured that the best possible care is given to every patient, including Mr Johnson.

So now Mr Johnson needs to re-energise his government, set policy and drive the government machine forwards. The agenda is a familiar one. The most pressing is the path out of lockdown – the “exit strategy”. Health secretary Matt Hancock has set out the five principles that the government will be guided by, but they do not amount to an actual decision on where and when to “adjust” policy. In Scotland and Wales, papers about the mechanics of have been produced on a spirit of transparency. They have taken the public into the process and treated them as adults. This has not yet happened in England, and it needs to.

It cannot be right that the public has to rely on anonymous briefings in the press about when pubs and barbershops are likely to reopen. Individuals and businesses need to make their own decisions. A pandemic is unpredictable and, in the current case, unprecedented. Yet clearer steer from No 10 about what happens next would be valuable. Mr Johnson will need all the political capital at his disposal to resist the siren calls of his own party to relax the lockdown. His own recent traumatic experience has made him cautious, which is probably the right instinct at this stage. Either way, decisions will need to be taken about how to alter the rules for different sectors, areas and age groups.

There are plenty of other areas that require “action this day”. How exactly to “ramp up” the promised supplies of kit and tests? How long to run business support schemes? How much to expand the national debt? Whether to trim back discretionary spending, such as on HS2. What happens if there is a second peak? How to deal with Brexit if the coronavirus crisis is still acute?

More than most governments, this administration is dominated by the prime minister and his advisers. They have been missed. It is time for urgent action.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in