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Rightwing sceptics helped deepen the UK’s Covid crisis

Coronavirus pandemic

Rightwing sceptics helped deepen the UK’s Covid crisis

Contrarian Conservatives preyed on Boris Johnson’s insecurities and slowed government response

© Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

Viruses do not respect ideology. You cannot persuade a pandemic to seek a middle way. And yet when judgment into the UK’s coronavirus response is finally passed it will be hard to escape the conclusion that excessive attention to Tory dogma has cost both lives and livelihoods.

The story of Britain’s crisis has been one of delaying the inevitable until it is unavoidable, a vicious cycle of slow response followed by sharp correction which lasts longer for starting later.

This pattern reached a peak on Monday in a juddering reverse which saw a full lockdown. Schools were told to close on the day they reopened, hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested such a response was not necessary. Allies point to new data, but much of the information was already in plain sight.

The UK has been unlucky in the arrival of a more transmissible variant but, in the words of one member of the government’s scientific group for emergencies, “you make your own bad luck”. Scientific advisers are clear that letting an RNA virus expand into the community at the end of 2020 increased the chance of being hit by a virulent mutation.

There are no easy choices; each policy is ruinous for someone. Mr Johnson was not wrong to try to contain the virus while keeping schools open, though this depended on disastrously over-optimistic assessments of contact tracing and then mass testing capacity. The mistake was failing to act swiftly when it became clear this strategy was not working.

Yet, there has been one other significant factor. Mr Johnson’s decisions have been overly deferential to and fearful of libertarian conservatives and their media outriders.

A vocal core of MPs and pundits driven by ideology or contrarianism have argued for fewer restrictions, disputed data and denounced a sinister health establishment. They disdained face masks and argued, with varying degrees of honesty, that higher deaths among the old and infirm are a price worth paying to keep society open. Even after figures showed 1 in 50 have the virus, the Lockdown Sceptics website on Wednesday had a section headed “Where’s the pandemic?” which declared “cases are just positive tests”. 

That the sceptics knew Mr Johnson’s own instincts were against severe restrictions made no difference. While some Tory MPs were questioning certain measures or government failures, others rubbished the scientific advice, made him sweat over every vote and talked up leadership challenges. They were fortified by increasingly hysterical pundits in the Tory press. These hardline ideologists have inhibited an already indecisive premier.

Finally there are signs of a reckoning with reality. Tory sceptics, meeting as the Covid Recovery Group, are now focused on the speed of the vaccination campaign and a more justified assault on the failings of education secretary Gavin Williamson. But the damage has been done. The UK’s death rate and economic prospects are among the worst in Europe.

For most of this crisis these backbench MPs and pundits have had a champion to cheer at the top of cabinet. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, played a key role in fighting for fewer restrictions and challenging scientific advice at decisive moments. 

Mr Sunak should not be lumped in with the other agitators. He has never denied the seriousness of the pandemic. It was important that someone speaks for public finances and the economy. But his words have been seized on by rightwing MPs who used his status to increase pressure on Mr Johnson. It is also hard not to conclude that he has been at the wrong end of some big calls, not because he spoke for the economy but because he reached the wrong verdict on how best to serve it.

At the height of Tory dissatisfaction with Mr Johnson, when MPs were talking up Mr Sunak as an imminent successor, the chancellor talked the prime minister out of a mid-September circuit breaker. One adviser, who pushed for urgent action then, observes “too much airtime” was given to contrarians whose arguments were not supported by data.

Between early September and early October, the number of reported daily cases rose from 1,200 to 12,000, necessitating the stricter and more long lasting restrictions that have proved more costly to business.

In fairness to the chancellor, his stance might have been more justified had the contact tracing worked better, or mass testing been widely available. But he was aware of the problems. An honest desire to save the hospitality sector has probably made things worse. An excessive focus on the price of furlough and other support led to decisions which probably increased the ultimate cost.

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Fighting restrictions has extended the misery. Around the world the economies which are coping best are those which best controlled the epidemic.

There is no reason to question Mr Sunak’s motives but his status as an “oven ready” successor spooked the prime minister and made him nervous of facing down sceptics in his party, even though voters support his stance. His insecurity and the ferocious assaults by erstwhile allies led him to pay too much heed to his right flank over his health secretary or advisers.

None of this absolves Mr Johnson. It is his job to make the tough calls. But when this crisis is past, the UK would do well to take a hard look at those rightwing pundits and MPs who spent 2020 pressuring him out of decisive action, and to ask if these are people whose views we should still heed in the future.

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