Government didn't understand coronavirus in the ‘first few weeks and months’ of pandemic, says PM

Boris Johnson says he will ‘double down’ on his election-winning pledges as country emerges from Covid-19
BBC News

By Alain Tolhurst

27 Jul 2020

Boris Johnson has admitted the government didn't understand coronavirus in the "first few weeks and months” as he reflected on his first year as prime minister.

Speaking to the BBC he acknowledged there may be things he and his team "could have done differently" in its handling of the virus, and conceded there are "lessons to be learned" about how the virus was managed in the early stages.

And in a diversion from the previous insistence from ministers that the right decisions were taken at the right time, he said there are "very open questions" over whether the national lockdown came too late.

"I think, when you look back at this crisis, everybody can see that this was something that was new, that we didn't understand in the way that we would have liked in the first few weeks and months,” Johnson said.

“And I think probably the single thing that we didn't see at the beginning was the extent to which it was being transmitted asymptomatically from person to person. That wasn't clear to us or to anybody.

“I have to tell you, and there will be plenty of time by the way to look back at all the other things that we need to learn and there will be an occasion to do that.

"But I am very proud of many of the things that people in our public services did, that members of the public did, to deal with coronavirus, whether it’s building the Nightingales or making sure that we protected the NHS, finding the first really usable preparations and so on.”

Learn the lessons

He added that there “will be plenty of opportunities to learn the lessons of what happened”.

Asked whether there was a delay in implementing a lockdown, which ultimately cost lives, the PM admitted: "Maybe there were things we could have done differently and of course there will be time to understand what exactly we could have done, or done differently.”

He added: ”When you listen to the scientists, the questions that you've asked are actually very open questions as far as they are concerned. And there will be a time obviously to consider all those issues."

Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything that government did” in responding to the virus, but when pushed to admit what he got wrong, he said: “There will be a time obviously to consider all those issues. But I think what the public want us to focus on now is, what are we doing.

“The public’s done an incredible job. They have helped to get working together, tackling the disease, using the social distancing measures, following advice.

“Collectively, this country has done an incredible thing to get the disease down to the levels it's at. But we all know that it can come back.

“And we can see what's happening in other countries – I won't name them – but you can see the resurgence that’s happening.

“We know that we’re vulnerable there. So that's why we're getting on now with our preparations for the winter.

“A very important, massive flu vaccination programme, stockpiling PPE, making sure that we ramp up test and trace, and making sure that people get tested if they have symptoms.”

After a “rollercoaster” first 12 months in No.10, he was asked what his priorities will be for his next year in office.

"I mean the priorities are exactly what they always have been, except more so, except we're doubling down,” he said.

“Look at what happened, I got elected on a programme to deliver Brexit, unite our country and our party, and defeat the then leader of the opposition. And that’s what we did. And to energise the country.

“Now, actually, what we need to do as a country is double down on that agenda.”

He added that “for too long, this country has moved too slowly sometimes, so we need to go faster”.

“The agenda is what it was when I stood on the steps of Downing Street a year ago, but we want to go further and we want to go faster,” he said.

“And the test for me of success – of whether I’ve delivered on what I said to the British people will not be just whether we've managed to get the hospitals going and whether we've got the police out on the streets, and all the things that we want to do.

“It will be whether life is really starting to feel different, to be different, whether we're offering more hope and more opportunity for people who entrusted us with their vote in 2019 from parts of the country that perhaps had never voted Tory for a very long time, if at all.

“That's going to be my test, that's my personal test.”

Alain Tolhurst is chief eeporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

Read the most recent articles written by Alain Tolhurst - Sunak being 'transparent' about asylum backlog numbers, No.10 insists


Share this page
Partner content