Boris Johnson has admitted that there are “many things” he wishes his administration had done differently in the fight against Covid-19, as his chief medical officer acknowledged that the UK’s performance in the pandemic represents “a bad outcome” internationally.
Speaking on the anniversary of the first coronavirus lockdown, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that he would personally be dealing with this “deeply difficult and distressing period” for as long as he lives.
As the nation lit candles in remembrance of those lost to the virus, chief medical officer Chris Whitty cited new official figures showing that 147,179 people had died from the disease, adding: “More will do so, but we are now on the downward slope.”
While stressing it was difficult to make comparisons between different countries’ performance in dealing with Covid, Prof Whitty said: “The general point is we had a bad outcome. Many other countries had a bad outcome. What we want to try to do is to minimise mortality in the future and learn lessons from the past.”
Prof Whitty said the chances of eliminating Covid-19 from the world entirely were “as close to zero as makes no difference”.
Mr Johnson again declined to name a date for the public inquiry which he has promised into the handling of the pandemic, and refused to be drawn on whether he could have saved lives by locking down more quickly in common with other countries around the world.
But he identified some of the areas where he accepts his administration got things wrong, particularly in failing to realise early on the importance of transmission of the disease by people showing no symptoms.
“The single biggest false assumption that we made was about the potential for asymptomatic transmission, and that did govern a lot of policy in the early days,” he said.
“That misunderstanding about the reality of asymptomatic transmission certainly led to real problems.”
Mr Johnson was asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have locked England down earlier both when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020 and in the autumn when scientists advised a two-week circuit-breaker to stop a second wave in September.
He did not deny having delayed too long, saying only: “These are very, very hard decisions and there are no good outcomes either way.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer stepped up pressure for an early inquiry, telling reporters on a hospital visit in London: “I think the government was very slow to react.
“They were slow in the first wave, slow to go into lockdown, very slow with protective equipment to the front line. But then we went into the second wave and instead of learning the lessons they repeated the mistakes.”
Mr Johnson went straight from the press conference to a meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee at which he urged MPs to back him in a Commons vote on Thursday to extend coronavirus regulations to October.
Although the PM is certain of victory thanks to Labour support, Tory backbenchers said they expect “a few dozen” rebels to resist the move, dismissing government claims it is necessary to allow the continuation of business support schemes such as furlough.
One senior MP told The Independent that Mr Johnson will struggle to maintain restrictions even as long as the scheduled 21 June end-date for his roadmap to take England out of lockdown.
With no sign of any spike in cases since schools returned on 8 March and reported deaths reaching a six-month low of just 17 on Monday, the MP predicted that the public will simply cease to obey rules if they perceive the threat of hospitalisations and fatalities has passed.
“I sense growing concern – and not just among Conservatives – about the mismatch between the rate of vaccination and the pace of decline in infections and hospital admissions on the one hand and the extraordinarily slow lifting of restrictions on the other,” said the MP.
With half of adults vaccinated and around a quarter believed to be carrying protective antibodies because of previous infection, the UK was “approaching the territory where a virus finds it very hard to spread”, said the MP.
Mr Johnson paid tribute to all those who had made sacrifices over the past year.
“At the right moment, we will come together as a country to build a fitting and a permanent memorial to the loved ones we’ve lost and to commemorate this whole period,” he said.
Mr Johnson’s comments were welcomed by the cross-party March for Change group, which is launching a consultation on the design for a permanent memorial.
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: “The London memorial must be a permanent reminder of the sacrifice made by all key workers who got the UK through this crisis. The only fitting place for it is on Whitehall, where wreaths can be laid.”