No one is in charge of the UK’s coronavirus response – and it shows | Simon Jenkins | Opinion

Something is clearly wrong. Britain does not need Boris Johnson, but it needs a prime minister, and badly. Coronavirus promises are made and not fulfilled. Orders go out and are not delivered. The clothing industry in the UK apparently cannot mass-produce a simple medical gown or mask, and must turn to Turkey, China and volunteers with sewing machines and 3D printers for supplies.

Ever since Tony Blair came to power, the British government has been what some observers call “Napoleonic”. The focus of authority was one person sitting on a sofa. In good times, it has worked. In a bad time, it has collapsed. At first, Johnson didn’t take Covid-19 seriously, then he changed his mind and his advisers – and put himself in charge. Then he got ill and vanished.

Since then, a stage army of second-rate ministers, with a media alternately cheering and jeering, seemed in thrall to one man, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, whose record of modelling of past epidemics has been criticised.

Now, as countries across Europe feel their way to ending lockdown, Britain’s government refuses even to mention the phrase, let alone debate it. A public experiencing immense economic precariousness is considered unfit to be told anything, other than to obey orders of ludicrous joy-suppression. Sitting on a park bench is a police offence.

This week, the Europe-wide consensus on combating Covid-19 is starting to crumble. Death rates are plateauing, and at levels where national health services feel they can cope with a return to partial normality (as it appears can Britain’s). Shops and schools are cautiously reopening. Public spaces are refilling, within limits. In every country, every province, arguments are taking place, and what amounts to a great experiment is under way, with wildly unreliable statistics.

Not in Britain. No one is in charge. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is a serial promiser rather than deliverer. He is like a signalman with his wires cut. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is clearly not senior enough to win the case for relaxation. The stand-in prime minister, Dominic Raab, intones slogans about “protecting the NHS”. A government that resorts to slogans has lost an argument.

There is now a serious functional disconnect between Whitehall on the one hand and the Covid-19 economy on the other. The failures revealed in the 2016 Cygnus report on pandemic preparedness were not acted upon. Sunak’s 80% loan scheme has not worked, because banks were told to shoulder 20% of the risk and many are naturally baling. It should have been 100%. The furlough subsidies are similarly mired in bureaucracy. Money should have been “printed” and paid into individual bank accounts, not to companies.

Most serious has been an apparent collapse in public health beyond the realm of the NHS. From the start of the outbreak, the focus of attention should have been on those already caring for the elderly. Yet for weeks, care homes and home carers were not mentioned and the progress of the virus for them was not monitored. Because they were not “our NHS”, they were not even our dead.

The NHS was showered with beds and praise, while its workers were left at home, untested. Local government, which everywhere else in Europe seems to be deeply involved this emergency, was simply ignored. Equipment was not supplied, money was not spent. Whitehall famously hates “local” – and it shows.

If Johnson really thinks the country is at war, then the enemy has walked all over him at first push. It is right that the nation should summon its spirits to boost the morale of medical and caring staff. Their morale is crucial to public confidence. But in this emergency, morale is a function of competent government. After Covid-19, never again can Britain boast to the world the quality of its healthcare.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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