6 Mistakes The Tories Made At The Height Of The Pandemic Worth Remembering

Boris Johnson sitting besides Rishi Sunak in July 2020
Boris Johnson sitting besides Rishi Sunak in July 2020 WPA Pool via Getty Images

Rishi Sunak became a recognised name once he was appointed as chancellor under Boris Johnson, shortly before the first Covid lockdown in March 2020.

He was in charge of furlough and pushed the Eat Out To Help Out scheme through to try and get the economy up and running – only for another wave of infections to hit weeks later.

Now on the campaign trail hoping to get another go at No.10, the prime minister has mostly avoided the topic of Covid altogether – only the furlough scheme has been mentioned so far.

But the pandemic shook the UK to the core, and triggered Johnson to step down in July 2022, over those repeated breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street known as partygate.

But, putting aside the scandal which dominated the headlines for months, it is worth remembering the chaotic way decisions were made at the top of government during the pandemic.

Here are just some of the most noteworthy decisions the Conservatives made at the height of Covid.

1. Failed Antibody tests

Then health secretary Matt Hancock – who is not standing for re-election – promised there would be 3.5 million antibody tests available to employees.

They could then test themselves and see if they could return to work.

It later transpired that the overseeing official, Professor John Newton, said the tests were “not good enough to be worth rolling out”, but the scheme reportedly cost the British taxpayer £15.5m anyway.

2. PPE supply

The health department vowed there would be enough PPE to support the NHS and social care workers.

However, the UK refused on three different occasions to bulk buy PPE with the EU.

BBC Panorama later accused the government of inflating the numbers around how much of this equipment the UK even had, as officials supposedly counted each glove separately.

Sunak and Johnson at a No.10 press conference
Sunak and Johnson at a No.10 press conference WPA Pool via Getty Images

3. Covid tests

On April 2, 2020, Hancock vowed to offer 100,000 Covid tests per day by May 1.

However, the government only managed to claim they had succeeded with this target by counting nose and throat swabs separately.

Some home testing kits had also been shipped but not processed – but were still included in the overall 122,347 the government said had taken place.

4. Track and trace

A scheme meant to help identify anyone who had been in close contact with an infected person, this ended up being a complete waste.

It cost around £22billion, the same as the annual budget of the Department for Transport. Consultants were paid £1,000 per day.

The Public Accounts Committee chair, Meg Hillier, said in 2021: “Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.”

5. Lockdown promises

Then-PM Boris Johnson promised there would not be a second national lockdown in September 2020, and instead introducing the three-tier system.

A second lockdown soon followed, and Christmas was a disaster for many families across the country.

6. Eat Out to Help Out

Sunak came up with a plan to subsidise people going to restaurants and cafes in the summer of 2020 – a scheme later blamed for causing a spike in infections come autumn.

According to the Covid Inquiry, this scheme was launched without telling the officials in charge, like the government’s former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty.

The UK’s top civil servant Simon Case also told the inquiry: “I wasn’t aware of ‘eat out to help out’ until it was announced either.”

The Covid task force also claimed last year it could do “nothing” to stop Sunak’s plan.