After Britain first went into lockdown to arrest the spread of the coronavirus last year, one had to contend with a number of mitigating factors when assessing the government’s performance. Yes, the country then suffered the worst death toll in Europe, and the worst economic slump, but Boris Johnson had “followed the science,” delaying a lockdown on the advice of his government’s medical and scientific advisers. More generally, Britain—like everywhere else in the world at the time—was feeling its way in the dark. It may have stumbled more than most, costing many thousands of lives, but by the summer it appeared to have regained a modicum of composure, falling in line with most other European countries.
Yet today, once again, Britain is failing. Addressing the nation last night, Johnson warned that COVID-19 was running rampant throughout the country, with hospitals at risk of being overwhelmed, as he imposed a third national lockdown in nine months after weeks of pressure to strengthen the government’s response. Last summer, I sought to understand why Britain had done so badly—there was little doubt it had failed; the only question was why. Now the question has boomeranged back.
For Johnson and his government, the answer, like most sequels, is worse. From the beginning of the outbreak last spring, they understood the threat of a second wave in the winter. But while Johnson assiduously “followed the science” then, this time he has fallen out of line with his scientific and medical advisers, who have been pushing him to move harder for weeks, if not months.