The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson takes heat for saying U.K. did everything it could about covid

Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears Wednesday in the House of Commons. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

LONDON — After Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government had truly done "everything we could" to save the 100,000 lives taken by the coronavirus so far in Britain, a broad swath of scientists, public health experts, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens heaped scorn on the prideful assertion.

Johnson rightly boasted in Parliament on Wednesday that Britain is a world leader at rolling out vaccines — and is the envy of Europe and the United States, having given a first vaccine dose to more than 10 percent of its adult population.

The prime minister, too, likes to pose for photographs that show him on the front lines of science and care — but not at funerals. Earlier this week, 10 Downing Street tweeted pictures of Johnson at a vaccination center, Johnson giving a patient two thumbs up, Johnson staring at a vial of vaccine. He also passed before the cameras carrying a cooler of vaccine doses. He seems to want to appear central to the effort.

But Johnson’s critics stress that Britain on many days also posts the highest per capita death toll in the world.

“The question on everyone’s lips this morning is why?” said Labour Party opposition leader Keir Starmer, in remarks directed at Johnson in the House of Commons.

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On Tuesday evening from 10 Downing Street, Johnson said, “I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything the government has done. What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.”

The comment wasn’t as inflammatory as when President Donald Trump said about U.S. coronavirus deaths: “It is what it is.” But it prompted the same sort of blowback.

Skeptics on Wednesday ticked off long lists of alleged mistakes and broken promises, a policy of “dithering and delays,” as a leader of the Scottish National Party Ian Blackford put it.

While Johnson gave his government high marks for vaccines, many saw repeated failure and a year-long pattern of bold promises followed by calamities.

Jonathan Ashworth, the opposition Labour Party’s point person on health, said, “I’m sorry to say I simply can’t in my heart accept Boris Johnson did everything he could.”

Chris Ham, the former chief executive of the King’s Fund, an independent think tank, wrote in the British Medical Journal that the U.K.’s response to the pandemic compared “poorly” with those of other countries.

Ham listed a “litany of errors,” including delays in ordering a lockdown in March — a move some scientists say may have cost 20,000 lives — as well delays in further lockdowns in September and January.

He added that “a misplaced belief in English exceptionalism” contributed to its failure to learn from other countries.

“These deaths were far from inevitable,” said Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

In the Guardian, Sridhar was scathing: “While the number of U.K. deaths has entered the hundreds of thousands, New Zealand has recorded only 25 deaths from covid-19 so far. Taiwan has recorded seven, Australia 909, Finland 655, Norway 550 and Singapore 29.”

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Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told science journalists, “Public compliance with the guidance has mostly been good, so this is predominantly a failure of governance.”

Head said, “Any inquiry into the U.K. government handling of the covid-19 pandemic will find there is a lot to scrutinize.”

In his remarks to Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson flicked away calls for formal inquiries into the high death toll. There would be time to study the decisions taken, the prime minister said, but not in the middle of the pandemic when “37,000 people are struggling with covid in our hospitals.”

Johnson’s critics said this is the exact right time to learn from mistakes, as the country faces a surge driven by a highly contagious variant of the virus that preliminary studies suggest may be more lethal.

Many scientists mentioned the same failures:

●Delayed decision-making when calling for lockdowns, warning that doing so too late means locking down for longer and losing more lives.

●The decision to stop community testing in early March, so the hospitals had no idea what was about to hit them.

●A very expensive but failed rollout of test, trace and isolate programs.

●A bungled app that was supposed to tell Brits whether they had been exposed.

●Keeping borders open and not enforcing orders that international visitors from virus hot spots self-isolate upon arrival.

●The inability to provide enough personal protective equipment to front-line medical workers, which not only put those workers at risk but allowed hospital infections to soar.

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Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said of Johnson’s comments that the government did everything it could, “I’m not even sure that the prime minister believes it to be honest.”

Hunter said the U.K. hasn’t “had the worst pandemic, but not the best by a long way.”

He noted that Britain was slow to impose restrictions and too quick to ease them, that it encouraged people back into restaurants over the summer with an “Eat Out to Help Out” promotion, and that it had a breakdown of its test, track and isolate system.

He added that one of the significant drivers of the high death rate “goes to how we manage our elderly care in this country, which is pretty much farmed out.”

Hunter noted that people who work in nursing homes aren’t paid well and often have more than one job to help make ends meet.

Indeed, one of Britain’s greatest failures was its inability to protect residents in nursing homes, where a third of the deaths occurred in the first wave. In the early days of the epidemic, British hospitals were emptying their beds of older patients and sending them back to care homes. Many weren’t tested.

Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, told the BBC that Britain entered the pandemic “in a bad state,” with a slowdown in the improvement of life expectancy, a spike in health inequalities and the health of poor people outside of London getting worse.

Marmot said the U.K.’s high death rate from the virus was linked “to where we were before the pandemic crashed upon us.”

James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, said the government was right to be proud of an impressive vaccine rollout, alongside other wins by British science, including rapid detection of new variants.

But he cautioned that two large spikes in deaths “is not simply bad luck.”

Critics of the government response point out that the second surge in deaths occurred in the past few months.

“Over 100,000 deaths reflects a failure that we must learn from,” Naismith told science reporters. “We owe to the families left behind that when the vaccine has brought the virus under control, to identify where we have succeeded, where we have failed and what needs to change.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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