U.K. Scientists Defy Johnson to Speak Out on Virus Failures
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, gestures while standing outside number 10 Downing Street. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

U.K. Scientists Defy Johnson to Speak Out on Virus Failures

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling to contain a public split with his own top scientific advisers, after they warned the government must learn from the catalog of failures it made during the coronavirus crisis.

Standing next to Johnson on live television, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty highlighted a “long list” of potentially flawed decisions on the pandemic response that will need to be reviewed. At the much-watched daily news conference on Wednesday, the epidemiologist admitted that his greatest regret was the U.K.’s failure to get a testing program up and running fast enough.

Hours earlier, Neil Ferguson, a specialist who worked on modeling the outbreak in its earlier stages, said that had the U.K. imposed a lockdown sooner, the death toll could have been halved.

Johnson insisted it was premature to draw conclusions. He also pushed back on Ferguson’s criticism, saying that the U.K. followed the advice of its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), of which Ferguson was a member at the time.

“All such judgments will need to be examined in the fullness of time,” the prime minister said, when pressed on whether he would’ve done anything differently. “It’s simply too early to judge ourselves.”

U.K. Scientists Defy Johnson to Speak Out on Virus Failures

The Reckoning

With more than 41,000 coronavirus deaths so far, the U.K. has the second-highest toll in the world after the U.S., and the government has faced a cascade of criticism over its response to the pandemic. The admissions by the scientists are some of the frankest yet by senior figures. Johnson’s ratings have taken a tumble, just six months after winning a big majority at the general election.

The prime minister, who contracted the virus and almost died of it, has struggled to manage the deepest crisis of his premiership. His closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, was at the center of a row over whether he violated lockdown rules, a controversy that cut through to the public and damaged trust in the government. Meanwhile, with the rest of Europe opening up its borders, the U.K. is still largely shut down.

The ongoing business closures are now a grave threat to the economy, according to analysts. The OECD warned the U.K. economy could shrink 11.5% this year. The slump is almost twice as much as what’s expected for the global economy, and the 9.1% for the euro area.

Against this backdrop, Johnson now needs to contain a conflict between scientists and some government ministers that has spilled out in the open. Even as the premier sought to close down the discussion of what he’d got wrong, his medical advisers said learning lessons now will be vital to countering a potential second wave of the virus in winter.

“There’s a long list actually of things that we need to look at very seriously,” Whitty told journalists, when asked what he regretted about the U.K.’s efforts. “If I were to choose one, it would probably be looking at how we could speed up testing very early on in the epidemic.”

‘The Fog’

Whitty said there were “many other” issues that will need to be re-examined ahead of a possible second wave, but “many of the problems that we had” came from the lack of testing evidence on the outbreak. “We were trying to see our way through the fog,” he said.

Johnson is trying to return the country to normality as the number of new deaths from the coronavirus slows.

People can already meet in parks and gardens, so long as they maintain social distancing, and car showrooms and outdoor markets were allowed to re-open June 1. From Monday June 15, non-essential shops will be allowed to re-open, as well as zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas.

But Johnson is facing criticism over his handling of the return of schools, which is vital to enabling workers to return to their jobs.

He has had to delay the re-opening of all school classes until September because the education service is not ready. There are also calls from Johnson’s own Conservative Party colleagues to reduce the 2-meter (6 feet) social distancing rule in an attempt to help the hospitality and retail sectors. While he is sympathetic, government scientists say the measure is still necessary.

Bad Timing

The clash with the scientists came after Johnson announced a further easing of limits on social contact: under the new rules, single-adult households will be allowed to form bubbles with others who can support them.

From this weekend, adults who live alone, as well as single-parent families, will be able to form a support “bubble” with one other household, which can have more than one adult. They won’t have to heed social distancing rules requiring people to stay 2 meters away from each other. But households won’t be able to link up with more than one other under the plan.

“There are still too many people, particularly those who live by themselves, who are lonely and struggling with being unable to see friends and family,” Johnson said. “It’s a targeted intervention to limit the most harmful effects of the current restrictions.”

He stressed that there’s a balance of risk to be struck. “I have to be very mindful of the risk of new outbreaks,” he said. “My judgment at present is we must proceed cautiously.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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