How Boris Johnson Killed Tens of Thousands of Britons: The First Four Months

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

Epidemiologists agree that if swift and effective measures are put in place early, COVID-19 infects and kills fewer people. Johnson’s response was neither swift nor effective. Having a “particularly extreme form of capitalism,” Britain was already disadvantaged when it came to facing a pandemic. By May, 60,000 people in the UK had died: by far the highest number in Europe. Consider how the government responded and didn’t respond in the early months.


On 9 January, the European Union’s Directorate General for Health and Safety activated the Early Warning and Response System, in which “most members,” but not the UK, shared response and communications measures. On 17th, the EU began holding regular Health Security Committee meetings to discuss procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). Despite the UK being invited to participate, Team Johnson decided not to take up the offer.

Letting people die by refusing to acquire PPE from EU pipelines was a “political decision,” in the later-retracted words of the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald. Britain missed four of the 12 EU meetings. On 22nd, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) met for the first time. There were zero immunologists, molecular virologists, or residential care experts on the SAGE board.

A day later, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, lied and said that the UK was “well prepared” for a possible outbreak. Operation Cygnus (2014 and 2016) and the Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies (2017) had previously warned that Britain’s lack of preparedness meant that hundreds of thousands of people could die if a pandemic struck the UK.

COBRA stands for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where the Tories under PM Ted Heath first met in 1972 to secretly discuss the “emergency” caused by the miners’ strike. Since, then COBRA has been shorthand for top-level, emergency meetings in times of war, terrorism, natural disasters and, in the case of COVID, pandemics. COBRA first started meeting about COVID on 24 January 2020, a few weeks after the World Health Organization first reported on the virus. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, indirectly confirmed that Johnson, exercising his usual flippancy, skipped at least five COBRA meetings. Johnson chaired COBRA as late as 2 March.

On 31 January, the UK’s first confirmed cases of what was later called COVID-19 were confirmed in York.


Under the cover of “herd immunity” (which is actually nuanced and misunderstood), Johnson’s team took the decision to let COVID spread through the UK to protect “the economy” (translation: profits). In February, Johnson’s asset company– and hedge fund-linked puppeteer, Dominic Cummings, allegedly said: “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad” (paraphrased by a witness, denied by Cummings).

At a speech on 3 February, Johnson said: “there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.” Following the logic of neoliberal capitalism, Johnson then said that Britain should be the Superman of global economies: “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.” Britain, Johnson continued, should be “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right … to buy and sell freely.”

On 25 February, leaked modelling from the government’s National Security Communications Team (NSCT) predicted a reasonable worst-case scenario in which 80 percent of the population became infected and half a million died. Despite this, the government’s “herd immunity” approach prevailed. On 28th, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, confirmed that the number of cases in the UK had reach 19.


On 2 March, Johnson chaired his first COVID-related COBRA meeting. Despite the NSCT’s reasonable worst-case scenario of half a million deaths, the PM told the public to “go about business as usual.” On 3 March, Johnson told reporters: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everyone.” A couple of days later, Johnson appeared unchallenged on the TV show, This Morning, touting the let-people-die “herd immunity” approach. Referring to the public, he told the presenters: “perhaps you could take it on the chin.”

On 10 March, Tory Health Minister, Nadine Dorries, was diagnosed with COVID. Two days later and following the profit-before-life model, Johnson said: “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Government refusal to force a national lockdown led to voluntary shutdowns by many venues. But the Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool football stadium game went ahead between 10-13th. Since then, it has been reported that Cheltenham became a “hotspot” of COVID-19 and that people also died unnecessarily in Liverpool.

By 13th, there were 10 confirmed deaths nationally.

By mid-March, following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic and the refusal of government to follow international guidelines and standards, a number of respected scientists publicly criticized the government, including over 200 scientists in an open letter, the British Society for Immunology, and the WHO’s Margaret Harris. The government ignored the advice. Frontline NHS staff were ordered not to discuss the chronic lack of personal protective equipment, which never materialized.

On 17 March, it was reported that at a manufacturers’ conference, Johnson: “couldn’t help but act the clown,” allegedly joking that the NHS’s respirator crisis could be solved by mass production, which the PM dubbed Operation Last Gasp.

On 19th and citing zero scientific evidence, Johnson said: “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks … I am absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.” In response to press questions, he contradicted himself: “I cannot stand here and tell you that by the end of June that we will be on the downward slope. It’s possible but I simply can’t say that that’s for certain.” Johnson also mistook the planned 25,000 tests for “250,000” tests.

On 21st, it was revealed that the government had changed their PPE guidelines, presumably to cope with the shortage, putting the guidelines below WHO standards. A month later, doctors launched legal action against the government.

On 25th, the government bought 3.5m testing kits before checking to see if they worked. Health Secretary Matt Hancock later said, “no test is better than a bad test,” invoking the ghost former PM Theresa May’s Brexit propaganda: “no deal is better than a bad deal.” A day later, it was reported that the government had ordered 10,000 ventilators from pro-Brexit Tory donors JCB and Dyson, before testing any models.

The Cabinet refused to follow their own handpicked medical advisors’ guidelines on social distancing: press briefing podiums did not appear to be positioned 2 meters apart, MPs sat close together on the front bench of the House of Commons, and it was reported that the Cabinet offices did not follow social distancing advice. On 27th, super-spreader Johnson and Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, were diagnosed with COVID-19. The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, self-isolated after experiencing symptoms.

By 31 March, over 29,000 Britons had become infected and over 2,300 were dead.


In early-April, after Johnson rehired the campaign manager/sloganeer Isaac Levido who had helped him to win the December 2019 election, Hancock fessed up: “we did not have the scale” for diagnostics. There are “shortages of swabs and reagents.” By 1 April, just 2,000 NHS staff had been tested and many are gagged from speaking out. Hancock also revealed his personal responsibility for putting NHS staff lives in danger: “I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients.” The government sent NHS workers “to their slaughter.” Hancock went on to reveal that the government bought 17 million tests before sample-testing them. He then said that it might have been a waste of time and money: “the early results of some of them have not performed well.”

On 2 April, it was reported that thousands of small-to-medium-size enterprises (SMEs) were rejected by the government’s loan scheme. As late as 3 April, Chancellor and former hedge funder, Rishi Sunak, instructed banks to offer their own loan products to SMEs, but only after an immense backlash.

On 20 April, the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, tweeted: “the UK government is deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing COVID-19 disinformation campaign.” Britain’s propaganda equivalent of the three stooges—the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, ITV’s Robert Peston, and Sky’s Beth Rigby—had been so slavishly pro-government that by 22 April, 70 percent of the public no longer trusted them to hold Johnson to account.


Given the state of the UK when Boris Johnson took over, it is fair to say that any government, even a genuinely socialistic one, would have struggled to keep the death-told low. However, it is clear from the evidence presented here that Team Johnson’s reckless psychopathy made everything so much worse.

T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).