(CN) — A prime minister missing in action and still bedridden 27 days after he announced he was sick with Covid-19. A government accused of botching its response to the pandemic at every turn. Doctors and nurses dying at alarming rates. A country grappling with a death toll among the worst in Europe.
This is the troubling picture of the United Kingdom, where the government run by Boris Johnson, a charismatic but controversial Conservative prime minister, has become Europe's prime exhibit of government missteps and failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday, the U.K. reported 759 new deaths in its hospitals, bringing its total to 18,100 fatalities, the fourth highest in Europe. But unlike Italy, Spain and France, the U.K. continues to report deaths of over 700 people a day. One Labour Party parliamentarian said that's the equivalent of two jumbo jets colliding in midair.
Moreover, the number of fatalities in the U.K. is likely much higher. The Office for National Statistics said on Tuesday that the deaths in England and Wales for the week ending on April 10 were 75% higher than normal. Based on government data, the Financial Times newspaper estimates that as many as 41,000 people have died from the virus, more than double the official death toll.
Official tolls in other countries are also considered undercounts because many people who died in homes and nursing facilities were not tested for the virus and were not officially classified as dying from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
This week has been particularly rough for Johnson, who remains in quarantine where he is recovering after being infected with the virus. Johnson was briefly admitted to a hospital when his condition worsened.
Johnson contracted the virus after downplaying the outbreak and carried out his duties without taking precautions. He even visited a hospital with Covid-19 patients and was photographed shaking hands with hospital staff. For now, his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is standing in for the prime minister.
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that Johnson missed five national crisis meetings in January and February when the government was assessing the threat from the new coronavirus.
The article's headline read: “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster.”
The newspaper's report was a stunning chronicle of complacency and undercut the government's assurances that the U.K. was ready for a pandemic. The newspaper, relying on government sources, found stockpiles of protective gear were depleted. Pandemic planning had been put on the back burner during the U.K.'s crisis to deal with Brexit. Even after the threat was evident, the government was slow to stock up on ventilators, tests and other supplies, the Times reported.
Scandal erupted. Downing Street, the prime minister's office, issued a rare and lengthy rebuttal, but acknowledged Johnson had missed the meetings. The government said a prime minister doesn't always attend such national crisis meetings.
Instead of overseeing the crisis meetings, Johnson was spending time with his girlfriend – who had not yet informed the world that she was pregnant – at a country retreat. His mind may have been elsewhere also because he was involved in divorce proceedings.
“Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life during his stay in the countryside,” the newspaper reported. “Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.”
At the same time, Johnson was boasting about his remarkable political feat of winning a bruising and years-long fight over Brexit. He won an election in December and then easily pushed through Parliament the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, a historic moment and considered the most significant political shift in U.K. history since World War II.