“We are very, very well prepared”
Johnson finally attended his first Cobra meeting on 2 March and though Government’s scientific advisors warned that over half a million UK residents could die if the virus wasn’t contained, Johnson proclaims to the nation, “We are very, very well prepared”.
“I shook hands with everybody”
On 3 March a sub-group of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that the government should “advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene”. However, on the same day Johnson told a press conference , “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands”. He continued, “People obviously can make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is … our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.”
It was later revealed that, though SAGE is meant be an exclusively scientific group, at least two senior politicians were actively participating in their meetings including Johnson’s chief political advisor, Dominic Cummins. Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, warned that the purity of the scientific advice reaching the prime minister was being put at risk by the presence of political appointees such as Cummings.
Others on Sage commented that they were shocked, concerned and worried about the impartiality of advice when they discovered senior political advisers would be joining their meetings. There were calls for more transparency about the group’s membership after criticisms of the “botched” handling of the early days of the pandemic when the government said that they were following the best scientific advice.
The first death in the UK, from the coronavirus, was recorded on 2 March though it was 5 March before news of deaths was made public and, by this time, there had been 5 recorded deaths in total.
“take it on the chin”
On the 5 March Boris Johnson made an appearance on ITV’s ‘This Morning’ programme when he clarified that we had entered the ‘delay’ stage of his ‘contain — delay — research — mitigate’ staged approach. At around 3 minutes 20 seconds into this interview he again dismissively mentions that he has continued to shake hands with the people he meets in hospitals. At around 6 minutes 15 seconds he discusses ‘herd immunity which he describes as ‘take it on the chin’ and ‘let it move through the population’. Early in the interview he explains that the scientific advice from his team of experts does not propose taking ‘Draconian’ measures like closing schools and stopping mass gatherings.
There were echoes of John Gummer (Tory Minister of Agriculture) who, during a TV report, encouraged his daughter to eat a beef burger during the peak of the BSE cattle disease when, as if to illustrate his point, Johnson attended a Six Nations rugby match along with 82,000 spectators on 7 March.
Even after Ireland cancelled St Patrick’s Day parades scheduled for 9 March, the Tory Government insisted that there was no reason to cancel sporting events or large gatherings. Consequently a European Football match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid went ahead on 11 March: it was attended by more than 52,000 people, including 3,000 from Madrid where a partial lockdown was already in force.
The Cheltenham Festival also went ahead on the 10 – 13 March with 251,684 racegoers in attendance across the four days of the Festival. 68,500 attended the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 13 March.
On 13 March the FA suspended the Premier League football after two players became infected with coronavirus. This decisive action demonstrated more initiative and responsibility than the Government.