Failure to protect: who is to blame for Britain’s coronavirus crisis? | World news

The UK’s Covid-19 crisis has reached the blame phase, with Boris Johnson, ministers, civil servants and scientists coming under criticism that they underestimated the threat, were slow to act and are bungling the country’s response amid a wave of deaths.

So who is in the firing line – and why?

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson in Greenwich on 3 February

Boris Johnson in Greenwich on 3 February when he said the UK was prepared to fight against countries that wished to put up trade barriers to stop diseases such as coronavirus. Photograph: Reuters

Before he became prime minister, Johnson was accused of being too casual and not having a grip on detail, particularly when he was foreign secretary. This week it emerged he had failed to attend five high security Cobra meetings during January and February that were held to prepare for a possible pandemic. The allegation was published by the Sunday Times and later confirmed by Michael Gove. During this period, Johnson went on country breaks with his pregnant fiancee – fuelling concerns that he hadn’t take the threat seriously enough at an early stage.

Those fears hardened after it emerged that on 3 February, he claimed the UK was ready to be a free trade “superhero” fighting against those who wished to put up trade barriers to stop diseases such as coronavirus. Stung by the claims, the government issued a long defence of Johnson’s handling of the crisis and said the Sunday Times was guilty of “a series of falsehoods and errors”. Gove said it was not unusual for other ministers to chair Cobra meetings.

Matt Hancock, health secretary

Coronavirus: Matt Hancock sets goal of 100,000 tests per day by end of April – video

No other minster has been under more pressure than Hancock, who has been accused of boasting too much, and delivering too little – particularly on testing the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline NHS workers.

His commitment to roll out 100,000 tests by the end of April looked overly ambitious when he made it earlier this month – and with only a week to go, the target looks unreachable.

Although the UK has the capacity to do around 40,000 a day – the actual number of tests undertaken stood at 18,206 on Tuesday.

The boast will also “come back to bite him” according to one Downing Street insider who was quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

Ventilator procurement has also been another high-profile issue for Hancock. He has said the UK needs 18,000 machines – but so far, there are only 10,700 in action. Critics say he has focused on big name brands such as Dyson producing them from scratch, rather than helping pre-existing British ventilator manufacturers increase supply.

On 3 April he boasted of firms making PPE domestically and gave a “shout out to Burberry” for their offer to help. Weeks later Hancock admitted they were “tight on gowns”, and British companies have repeatedly complained that their approaches to government have not been taken up, with reports on Monday of some firms sending shipments of equipment abroad.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, chief medical officer

Patrick Vallance (left) and Chris Whittey in Downing Street earlier this month

Patrick Vallance (left) and Chris Whittey in Downing Street earlier this month. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Both won high praise for their calm handling of the crisis during its early days, but their roles have come under increased scrutiny – not least because ministers keep insisting they have taken decisions based on the advice that they are being given by them.

Critics of the government will say ministers cannot duck responsibility for taking key decisions – but there is undoubtedly huge pressure on Vallance, Whitty and the teams around them.

The concept of herd immunity was first raised publicly by Vallance on 13 March with a comment that it could be an “important part of controlling [coronavirus] longer term”. His remark sparked alarm among the public as the UK continued to allow mass gatherings, while European neighbours were banning sports fixtures and closing schools.

The phrase was quickly shot down by Hancock who said it was not a “goal or a strategy” of the government. A few days later, a scientific report was released by Imperial College London’s Covid-19 response team that stated that without urgent and aggressive suppression measures, up to 250,000 people could die.

Whitty has already conceded Germany “got ahead” in testing people for Covid-19 and said the UK needed to learn from that as it races to set up diagnostic facilities from scratch.

Sir Mark Sedwill and the civil service

Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service

Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and head of the Civil Service. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock

The cabinet secretary’s role at the centre of government is pivotal – Sedwill is the national security adviser, head of the civil service and it fell to him to tell the cabinet that Johnson had been taken into intensive care – has made him a target of sniping from unnamed government aides over a number of weeks.

“Sources” have claimed in the Times and the Sunday Times that he failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis in February; one, quoted in the Financial Times, even claimed that he had fallen out with Johnson and his aides over the response to the virus.
Cabinet Office insiders have hit back, calling the claims “shit-stirring” and a move towards blaming civil servants who cannot speak out. Sedwill, who has enemies among Johnson’s advisers and in the cabinet, is unlikely to accept any attempt to shift the blame without a fight.


Chinese president, Xi Jinping

Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Photograph: Xie Huanchi/AP

In the wake of Donald Trump’s attempts to characterise Covid-19 as the “Chinese disease”, several government ministers have sought to highlight the regime’s failings in tackling the disease in December and January.

When under pressure for a lack of testing in the UK, Michael Gove appeared to lay the blame for the UK’s lack of readiness for coronavirus upon China.

“Some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this,” he said.

His comments followed Downing Street briefings claiming that ministers expect a “reckoning” with China over misinformation – UK scientists claimed the number of deaths in China could be 40 times greater than officially reported, while Chinese doctors who tried to blow the whistle were silenced.

Many scientists have pointed out that China voluntarily shared the genetic code of the virus very quickly, allowing countries to start making diagnostic tests and working on vaccines.

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization building in Geneva.

The World Health Organization building in Geneva. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

The UN agency, which is responsible for sounding the global alarm during outbreaks of major diseases, has been accused by Trump of failing to test China’s claims and repeatedly praising the communist government for its response.

Downing Street joined in the criticism, saying the WHO’s response to the outbreak of the pandemic in China showed there was room for it to “improve its response” to such emergencies.

Whille Trump has withdrawn funding to the WHO, No 10 has said it will not follow his lead and would continue to fund the body, having already given it £75m to fight the virus.

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