In the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, the former health minister, Lord Bethell, has asserted that the UK government’s focus on Brexit took precedence over addressing the pandemic. Lord Bethell, who assumed the role of health minister in March 2020, noted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson made considerable efforts to divert attention away from the growing crisis.
During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Conservative peer revealed, “I was aware that during the early days of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to get any response from Downing Street, and we could see this train coming down the tracks at us.” He expressed his bewilderment at the notion that Brexit was considered a higher priority, calling it “completely unexplainable and baffling.”
Lord Bethell further disclosed, “I know [Boris Johnson] found the prospect of a pandemic personally very difficult to focus on, it was bad news of a kind he doesn’t like to respond to, and he did everything he could to try to avoid the subject.”
These revelations precede the anticipated testimony of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, at the ongoing Covid-19 inquiry. Also slated to appear is Lee Cain, the former director of communications at No 10, who departed the government shortly before Cummings.
Reflecting on the atmosphere in Downing Street at the time, Lord Bethell characterized it as “chaotic,” emphasizing that it had devolved into an “office culture that had gone badly wrong, where bullying and chaotic behaviors had become normalized.” He expressed disappointment, admitting he felt “very let down” after initially supporting Johnson’s candidacy for prime minister. Frequent policy reversals, or “U-turns,” further hindered their efforts in managing the crisis.
This week’s proceedings at the inquiry are expected to be challenging for the former prime minister. A diary entry from a former private secretary submitted to the inquiry suggested Johnson questioned the economic damage being incurred for individuals who were deemed to have a limited life expectancy. Imran Shafi, the official who wrote the memo, affirmed that he believed it was Johnson who made those comments. Additional entries and messages indicated a lack of confidence in the former Tory leader from senior advisers.
Simon Case, the highest-ranking civil servant in Whitehall, voiced his concerns about Johnson’s leadership capabilities, asserting that he “cannot lead” and was inclined to adopt a more laissez-faire approach when making critical decisions regarding the UK’s response to Covid-19. These sentiments were conveyed in a WhatsApp message to Dominic Cummings, who was Johnson’s chief adviser at the time.
Excerpts from the notebook of Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, revealed that he perceived the former prime minister to be “weak and indecisive.” This insight sheds light on the internal dynamics within the government during the early stages of the pandemic response.