The tone of our debate over the government’s coronavirus response has again shifted further towards criticism becoming more ‘acceptable’. There has been a sense among many that it is inappropriate to highlight the myriad failures during a public health crisis. But the Sunday Times investigation has helped to dispel the myth that politeness should be prioritised above necessary scrutiny. The detail that has most caught people’s attention is the absence of Boris Johnson from five COBRA meetings on the virus. “He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends,” one adviser told the paper.
Michael Gove offered an unusual defence of the Prime Minister on the Sunday shows. He described “one or two aspects” of the report as “slightly off-beam”. He also said “the idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus is grotesque”, which is strong language to use when nobody is denying that Johnson missed the meetings. Labour’s health spokesperson Jonathan Ashworth called it “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed exposé in British political history”, and suggested that the PM was “missing in action” in the early stages of the crisis.
The fact that Johnson missed meetings is important. Such an attitude has consequences, and some of the charm of his persona will have rubbed off. But the left must not lose sight of the way that elites work. In a crisis where the ruling party has made fatal decisions, Boris Johnson as a character who has already served a crucial purpose – securing an 80-seat Tory majority – may then become politically expendable. What must be kept in mind is that ideology led to lack of preparation for a pandemic, and ideology will inform next steps. These underlying factors should not be forgotten in favour of holding one individual accountable.
Keir Starmer has a difficult task on his hands, as he tries to weigh up the options for styles of opposition and their results for both country and party. John McDonnell implicitly slated the path chosen so far by the new Labour leader when he tweeted that it is “not opposition for opposition’s sake” to call out the government’s failures on testing and protective equipment. That these urgent demands need to be made powerfully and repeatedly is clear. We are now hearing concerns raised over the latest change in guidance on PPE, which health workers say has not been issued on the basis of science but due to inadequate supply. Hopefully the appointment of a new ‘tsar’ to coordinate PPE manufacture and distribution – a move that Unite called for on LabourList – will prove helpful.
With schools not set to reopen until at least the end of May, the BBC is stepping up with a new virtual education offer. It will feature Jodie Whittaker of Doctor Who, Professor Brian Cox leading on science topics, Danny Dyer on Henry VIII… and former Labour Treasury minister Ed Balls teaching maths. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.