Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Simon Stevens held a very sombre press conference in Downing Street this evening to mark the awful milestone of more than 100,000 UK deaths in this pandemic. The Prime Minister offered his ‘deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one’, and promised that ‘when we have come through this crisis, we will come together as a nation to remember everyone we lost, and to honour the selfless heroism of all those on the front line who gave their lives to save others’. He also pledged that ‘we will make sure that we learn the lessons and reflect and prepare’.
This was the closest the Prime Minister came to talking about taking responsibility for the high death toll. He also insisted that ‘we did everything that we could to minimise suffering and minimise loss of life in this country’. Later, both he and Whitty reflected on the sort of lessons they’d already learned. For Johnson, it was more about what the UK had now developed, such as effective PPE supply chains, and testing. These are not really lessons learned, and Johnson will know that.
Whitty was rather more constructive, saying scientists didn’t initially appreciate the importance of asymptomatic transmission, that they hadn’t supported widespread mask-wearing initially, and that doctors had learned clinical lessons about treating the virus.
What Johnson has said this evening, about the need to learn lessons and the government doing everything it could, might work as a holding line. But when the public inquiry is held, it will presumably examine the speed with which he took decisions, whether he treated the pandemic with the seriousness it merited from the outset, and whether the claims that ministers have repeatedly made about ‘putting a protective ring’ around the care sector, for instance, are at all accurate. When those details are picked over and there is no immediate crisis to deal with instead, the line ‘we did everything we could’ may look more like an aspiration than reality.
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