What went wrong with the UK government’s pandemic response and why? As an inquiry looms, the search for a scapegoat is on
Boris Johnson was enjoying a Sunday barbecue at 10 Downing Street when the blame game over Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis formally began. News was leaking that he was about to oust the head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, after months of tensions and hostile briefings over the way the country had dealt with the virus. By June 28, it was clear the UK was facing one of the worst death rates and biggest economic disasters of any major economy.
Advisers urged the prime minister to drag himself away from the garden to formalise Sedwill’s departure immediately. Johnson wiped his hands and disappeared inside to scrawl a handwritten note confirming that, after little more than two years in his post, the security expert would be leaving. Amid the sloping text of the two-page letter, laden with praise for the official he was effectively sacking, Johnson added ominously that Sedwill was “instrumental” in drawing up the country’s plan to deal with coronavirus.
After months of mistakes, fatal delays and episodes of incompetence at the heart of the British state, that is a line that few would choose to put on their CV. Johnson knows blame will soon start to be apportioned ahead of an eventual inquiry into the handling of the virus. “There are plenty of things that people say and will say that we got wrong and we owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time,” he said in a speech two days later in the West Midlands.
But when the blame is distributed, Johnson’s team will try to ensure it remains as far away from the prime minister as possible. Civil servants, scientists, public health officials and ministers are all being eyed as potential scapegoats for a searing episode that has seen 45,053 people die and, according to the OECD, left the British economy facing the biggest recession of any European nation.