Dither, Delay, Disaster: The Times indicts Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus response

April 22, 2020

4 min read

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What's going on here?

An article recently published by The Times has revealed that the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed 5 Cobra meetings about the coronavirus. The article accuses the British government of wasting 5 weeks between 24 January and 2 March which “may have cost thousands of lives”.

What does this mean?

The Times article accuses the government of inactivity for 38 days between 24 January and 2 March. It claims that, in the face of scientific evidence, the government “did nothing” until Boris Johnson finally chaired a Cobra meeting on the virus on 2 March which ended the paralysis. This has caused delays in ordering protective gear, potentially putting healthcare workers’ lives at risk and increasing the severity of the pandemic in the UK. 

Reports on 24 January, before the first Cobra meeting that Johnson missed, by scientists at Imperial College and then on 26 February by scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine informed the government about the importance of acting to combat the virus. Despite understanding the importance of testing and the depletion of NHS resources in February, the government did not ask for help from the majority of the UK’s testing sector. Further, the NHS did not contact British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA), who manufacture gowns and masks, until 1 April. Instead, during January and February, the British government supplied China with thousands of goggles, gloves, face masks, sanitising wipes and medical gowns.

Cobra meetings are called to deal with a crisis such as a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster. They consist of ministers, military personnel, intelligence chiefs and government advisers, but the Prime Minister does not have to be present. Missing 5, however, is perhaps a worrying sign. The Times claims that Johnson was too busy with other matters, both political and personal to attend, including Brexit, a 12-day “working holiday” from 13 February, and various personal affairs. 

The Conservative minister Michael Gove responded to The Times’ accusations saying, “the idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus I think is grotesque”. He refused to comment on whether Britain had supplied China with personal protective equipment (PPE) but noted that a point-by-point rebuttal… will be done later”, and this has since been published.

What's the big picture effect?

The article in The Times has instigated fierce criticism of the government’s preparations for the pandemic and of Boris Johnson’s character. The article also notes that the UK’s crisis response capabilities were made fragile by the austerity agenda that dominated the post-financial crisis politics. The accusation that the government did not react decisively to this initial setback in the face of scientific evidence will have outraged and frustrated many. They will want to know the truth about the government’s unpreparedness which as the article in The Times suggests, could be the subject of a future inquiry.

In the event that a public inquiry is held, and the Times’ allegations hold true, there could be some unheralded legal consequences. Impeachment may be one route of redress, as it could be alleged that Johnson failed to uphold his duties as prime minister. This is legally unprecedented for a British prime minister, but a dormant parliamentary procedure states that a member of parliament can be tried by their peers for “high crimes and misdemeanours, beyond the reach of the law or which no other authority in the state will prosecute”. Of course inquiries are often protracted affairs, so it is likely that Johnson will no longer be in office when any potential inquiry concludes. 

Furthermore, with a large conservative majority, it is very unlikely that this would be successful. That said, in 2004, Johnson himself advocated for the former prime minister Tony Blair’s impeachment over Iraq in his Telegraph column. The rationale behind Johnson’s argument might today be appealing to those who doubt the competence of the government’s preparations, or lack thereof in February, for the pandemic. He thought the procedure of impeachment “would at least force Blair to come clean, and say why he felt it necessary to be so reckless with the truth”.

Others may wonder if the government might be guilty of gross negligence manslaughter for breaching a duty of care to healthcare workers who have died from the virus. To determine if there was a duty of care, a case would have to satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Was the damage foreseeable?
  2. Was the claimant in an appropriate position of proximity to the claimant?
  3. Was it fair and just to impose liability (responsibility) on the defendant?

A further complication to this would be the doctrine of sovereign immunity (“the king can do no wrong”) which is enshrined in the State Immunity Act 1978. There is however, an exception to immunity for the state in proceedings relating to death and personal injury caused by acts and omissions in the UK.

All in all, it seems unlikely that there will be any legal proceedings arising from the revelations by The Times. However, the prospect of an inquiry is feasible, and many would be eager to hear its findings.

Report written by Will Holmes

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