Can Boris Johnson Ease The Panic Over Coronavirus?

The PM could be facing far worse than being labelled a part-timer.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Nobody panic!

Last week we were questioning why Boris Johnson had been so absent from the government’s response to the floods.

And despite being labelled a “part-time prime minister” by Jeremy Corbyn this week, Johnson has again opened himself up to criticism by scheduling his first emergency Cobra meeting on the coronavirus outbreak for next Monday.

This time it was up to shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth to repeat the Labour leader’s line, a rare zinger at PMQs this week, and urge the PM to “get a grip”.

To be fair to Downing Street, the meeting was called for Monday some hours before we learned that a tourist from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan had become the first Briton to sadly die from Covid-19.

But while the government with its 80-seat majority will dismiss Labour’s jibes, the criticism has deepened as concerns and coronavirus cases increase in Britain.

No.10 pointed out that Johnson spent half the night shift on Thursday visiting Kettering hospital where clinicians talked him through their preparations.

And officials from the Department of Health, Public Health England and other relevant departments were meeting daily to discuss the crisis, while health secretary Matt Hancock had been chairing a weekly Cobra meeting.

‌Johnson even appeared to do a TV clip on Friday night to insist “the issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority”.

But former chancellor George Osborne, whose Evening Standard newspaper has been supportive of Johnson, stressed that an uneasy public needs more open displays of grip and leadership at times of crisis.

Osborne urged the PM to put the government on a “war footing”, chair regular Cobra meetings and put ministers on “all major media shows”.

“The public is fearful, wants information and needs to know their leaders have got a grip,” he tweeted.

‌It will be fascinating to see if No.10 heeds Osborne’s advice and lifts its ban on ministers talking to blacklisted broadcast shows such as the Today programme, with its 7.2m weekly listeners, and allow health secretary Matt Hancock to appear on Saturday or Monday.

Gordon Brown’s former aide Damian McBride meanwhile gave a rare insight into the running of government during a health crisis, and in the process highlighted the “stark” contrast with Johnson’s government.

McBride pointed out that during the 2007 foot and mouth disease outbreak, every single day Brown personally chaired Cobra meetings, briefed opposition leaders and the media, and had a minister doing a full round of broadcast interviews.

“And that was just the daily routine to assure the public we were on top of it all,” McBride said.

‌“If we had something big to announce, like the expansion of the cull zone, or suspending the racing calendar, it was a much bigger exercise.

“The contrast with the Tories now couldn’t be more stark.”

Of course, the number of confirmed cases in the UK (19 at the time of writing) is relatively small with 7,000 people having been tested.

But with financial markets tanking, experts warning that mass gatherings may need to be cancelled for two months, doctors warning that the NHS is not prepared and several schools sending pupils home over fears of coronavirus contact, Johnson would do well to get on top of any panic.

If he fails to do so, the PM could be facing far worse than being labelled a part-timer.

Quote Of The Day

“For us substance is much, much more important than deadlines.”

– French Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin comes to London’s Chatham House to warn that the EU will not water down its Brexit negotiation red lines under time pressure.

Friday Cheat Sheet

A British man who was aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama has died from coronavirus, the first death of a UK citizen during the outbreak.

Brussels will not be pressured by “artificial deadlines” in the post-Brexit trade talks between the EU and UK, France’s Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin warned.

A Momentum activist who was reported to anti-fraud police over her talent agency business is facing calls for her suspension from a key post within the Labour party, HuffPost UK revealed.

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