'Absolutely bonkers': Scientists reveal reaction to Boris Johnson's infamous 'shaking hands' speech at start of pandemic

A Channel 4 Dispatches programme questioned the government's response to the coronavirus crisis. (Picture: PA)
A Channel 4 Dispatches programme questioned the government's response to the coronavirus crisis. (PA)

Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has come under fire from scientists, with one labelling his controversial speech about shaking hands “absolutely bonkers”.

Speaking on Channel 4’s Dispatches, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the SPI-B advisory group —a group of behavioural scientists that provides advice to the government on how the public would respond to lockdown measures — criticised the prime minister’s declaration that he was still shaking hands with people at the start of the pandemic.

In a speech at the start of March, Johnson said: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”

Speaking to Dispatches, Prof Reicher said: “I think it was absolutely bonkers.”

Fellow SPI-B member Professor Susan Michie, director at the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, added: “I was frankly horrified. It seems very odd for somebody who is in a position of power and a position of influence to be stating something that is so much at odds with, not only common sense, but scientific evidence about transmission.”

The programme titled Britain’s Coronavirus Catastrophe: Did the Government Get It Wrong?, which aired on Wednesday night, claimed the government had failed in several ways when it came to dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

It also included claims from an Italian health minister that Johnson told Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte that he “wanted herd immunity” on 13 March.

The government has denied achieving herd immunity has ever been its policy.

The programme comes as Johnson faces mounting pressure for the way the government has dealt with the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the PM defended his handling of the crisis in a fractious prime minister’s questions session where Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused him of presiding over a government that had lost the “trust and confidence” of the British people.

Johnson defended NHS England’s test and trace system, saying “thousands” of contacts of people who had tested positive for coronavirus had been traced but stopped short of giving specific figures.

The PM voiced his displeasure at what he described as “endless attacks” and told MPs: “I take full responsibility for everything this government has been doing in tackling coronavirus and I’m very proud of our record.”

Critics say the government is easing lockdown too soon, with schools reopening and those who have been shielding allowed out sooner than expected.

In the Dispatches programme, Pierpaolo Sileri said he had spoken to Italian PM Conte on the phone and he had recounted his phone call with Johnson.

“I remember he said: ‘He told me that he wants ‘herd immunity’,” he told the programme. He added: “I remember that after hanging up, I said to myself that I hope Boris Johnson goes for a lockdown.”

Dispatches said while the government had not been interviewed in the programme, it had denied that herd immunity was its strategy.

It shared a statement that said: “We have taken the right steps at the right time to combat [this pandemic]. At every stage, the government has been guided by the advice of experts from SAGE and its sub-committees.

“Our response has ensured that the NHS has capacity for everyone who needs it.”

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