Boris Johnson announced this week he was “very proud” of the government’s record in tackling coronavirus, but as Britain’s official death toll approaches 40,000 many Conservative MPs are growing increasingly anxious.
“It has been a bad two weeks,” said one veteran Conservative MP, reflecting on the erratic and occasionally farcical political scenes that have played out against a backdrop of human suffering.
In March Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said 20,000 deaths during the pandemic could be a “good outcome”, but the number of people who have died following a positive test is now almost double that number: 39,904. The total number of excess deaths — those above the average taken from the previous five years — has topped 60,000.
Tory MPs returned to Westminster this week after many weeks in their constituencies dismayed at what they regard as a series of policy and presentational mis-steps, which they fear has undermined public trust in the government.
Mr Johnson’s approval ratings fell 20 points after a dire week in which he was forced to defend his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, over allegations the adviser broke the government’s own lockdown rules, including driving to a County Durham beauty spot to supposedly test his eyesight.
“Our parliamentary assistants have had to reply to hundreds of letters of complaint,” said one Tory MP. Another said: “I don’t think my secretary will be sending Dominic Cummings any cakes to say thank you.”
The mood darkened when MPs, instructed back to Westminster, were forced to queue for 45 minutes to vote after a functioning electronic voting system was scrapped. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, said MPs had to “set an example” to the rest of the country by returning to work.
Valerie Vaz, his Labour shadow, compared it to the vast queues forming at Ikea, although she said at least people there could look forward to buying a “cushion and some meat balls”. In the Commons she said MPs risked ending up “infected”. Steve Baker, a Tory MP, tweeted: “This is a farce.”
MPs were left fearing the worst on Wednesday night when Alok Sharma, business secretary, sweated his way through a House of Commons speech and rushed home to self-isolate amid concerns he may have become the latest minister to catch the virus.
On Thursday Mr Sharma woke feeling better, telling colleagues he believed he was suffering from food poisoning. “It was cold salmon in a ready meal,” he told friends. His self-diagnosis was confirmed later on Thursday when a test for coronavirus came back negative.
“Huge thanks to everyone for their really kind messages over the last 24 hours and my grateful thanks also to the parliamentary authorities and Speaker for their support yesterday,” he tweeted. “Just had results in and my test for #COVIDー19 was negative.”
The news will have been greeted with particular relief in Downing Street where Mr Sharma had spent 45 minutes on Tuesday discussing the economy with Mr Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak. Had the test result been positive the top two figures in the government might have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
The scare over Mr Sharma and the return of MPs to Westminster, previously a coronavirus hotspot, symbolised questions about whether Mr Johnson was lifting Britain’s lockdown too early — a criticism raised by many scientists, who pointed out that total case numbers and infection rates were still too high.
The “world class” track and trace scheme promised by Mr Johnson has been launched but the person running it, Dido Harding, could not tell MPs what proportion of new cases were having their contacts tracked. A tracing app shows no signs of emerging from its trial on the Isle of Wight and it remains unclear when the tracing system will be fully operational.
Tory anxiety about whether Mr Johnson had a grip was amplified by Downing Street’s insistence that Britain introduce a 14-day quarantine for people entering the UK, while other countries with far lower infection rates start to lift their travel restrictions.
Sir Patrick, standing alongside Mr Johnson at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, made it clear the quarantine had little scientific merit, saying it would have most effect when cases in the UK were very low and “when applied to countries with higher rates”.
Liam Fox, former defence secretary, led a chorus of Tory criticism of a policy which appeared to meet neither scientific criteria: “I’m afraid I simply cannot get my head around the public health mental gymnastics of this policy.”
Mr Johnson insisted it was intended to stop infection being brought into the UK as coronavirus was brought under control, but Tory officials have also pointed to opinion polls suggesting 80 per cent of people supported £1,000 fines for people breaking the quarantine.
Tory MPs believe that Mr Cummings, who obsessively tests ideas with focus groups, was the author of the policy. “We are governing by focus group,” sighed one senior Conservative with close links to Number 10.
One former cabinet minister said: “We need to get out of permanent campaigning mode and get into governing mode. Margaret Thatcher used to say: campaign during campaigns and govern during government.”
Some Tory MPs fear Mr Johnson, who suffered a near-fatal bout of the virus, has not fully recovered. “He’s not fit — and that’s not surprising,” said one. Across Whitehall, the endless pressure is starting to take its toll: “We’re all knackered,” said one official.
But Mr Johnson insisted this week the government would be vindicated: “I take full responsibility for everything that this government have been doing in tackling coronavirus, and I am very proud of our record.”