Brexit pushed UK to ‘sleepwalk to disaster’

Distracted: Boris Johnson on the day of a Cobra meeting about the virus in January. © Getty

Did Brexit undermine Britain’s virus response? A report in the Sunday Times claims to show an exhausted government with its eye off the ball in the key weeks when decisive action was needed.

31 January was meant to be Brexit day.

For years, the political discourse in the UK had been reduced to a single debate about leaving the European Union. A month after Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory, Brexit was done.

The prime minister declared the country would now level up: “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.”

But behind the scenes, a great threat was rearing its head.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times published a harrowing report, listing all of the government’s mistakes in the lead up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the eve of Brexit day, the WHO declared the coronavirus a global emergency. Many UK scientists had already warned of the potential danger that lay ahead.

Members of a government advisory group regularly joked about how they were not prepared for an outbreak. A pandemic rehearsal in 2016, revealed the flaws and shortages currently being experienced by the country.

Though a pandemic is still officially listed as the main threat to the nation, other priorities like terrorism and Brexit had taken centre stage. Years of austerity and spending cuts had stripped away vital resources.

Most damning of all was the Downing Street insider who said that Boris “didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be”.

As Covid-19 spread across the UK, none of the pandemic plans were put into place. Boris took regular breaks, attending to issues in his private life. Aides were told to “keep their briefing papers short”.

In late February, scientists warned of a catastrophic loss of life. When the lockdown finally came, four weeks later, it was too late. The UK had missed the chance to avoid an outbreak like Italy’s.

The result is what historian Niall Ferguson has called a worst-of-both worlds scenario: “enough lockdowns to condemn us to economic depression, but not enough to avert a much higher level of mortality than we are ready for”.

Though he challenged some of the Sunday Times report yesterday, government minister Michael Gove admitted: “all governments make mistakes”. Indeed, regardless of political context, countries all around the world have struggled to stay on top of the outbreak.

Is if fair to conclude that Brexit undermined Britain’s virus response?

Delayed reaction

Yes. the government appeared over-confident and complacent at the start of the outbreak. Lazy wording like “herd immunity” and declarations by the PM of “shaking hands with everyone” presented an unrealistic view of the crisis. By focusing on a single issue for the last four years, the Conservatives have proven thoroughly unprepared for the first real task of national leadership.

No. Though the government was slow to respond to the outbreak, it never went against its scientific advisers. Disasters are rarely expected, let alone averted. The focus on Brexit had already been relaxed since the election victory. Any single explanation misses the complexity of what is still a global crisis. It is always easy to cast the blame in hindsight.

You Decide

  1. Humans are not designed to prepare for things in advance – but to react quickly once they have happened. Do you agree?
  2. When did you first hear about the virus? When did you first become truly worried by it?


  1. Using the Expert Links, have a look at the front pages of the newspapers today. Write down the three headlines that you think Boris Johnson would find most challenging this morning.
  2. In a group chat with classmates, debate the idea that still being a key part of the European Union would have helped the UK’s response to coronavirus.

Some People Say...

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

HG Wells (1866-1946), English writer and author of War of the Worlds

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is known that, despite the media running stories about the outbreak as early as January, few in the UK were expecting this exact course of events. Even when a disaster is just around the corner, it is easier to imagine that things will stay the same. Psychologists call this “normalcy bias” or “negative panic”.
What do we not know?
A major area of contention is whether recent political events like Brexit necessarily affected the UK government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. We do not know if a different leader would have been able to fare any better. Furthermore, comparing the responses of different countries to an unknown virus is also an imperfect science.

Word Watch

A verbal exchange of ideas; a conversation.
Unmistakable; enormous; emphatic.
Boris Johnson’s government catchphrase “levelling up” describes the ambition to raise the level of economic performance in all parts of the country to that of London.
Worrying or distressing. The word comes from the harrow, which is an agricultural tool used to break the earth.
World Health Organisation, an international group founded by the UN to give advice and assistance during medical health crises. Donald Trump recently announced that the US would stop funding it because of its supposed pro-China bias.
A word derived from austere which means strict. It is used to refer to the years following the 2009 financial crisis, when the Conservative government cut spending on public services in an attempt to reduce debt.
In politics, this means a continued period of economic shrinking accompanied by a high unemployment rate. The major historical example was the Great Depression of the 1930s.
To avoid.
Being smug or self-satisfied about one’s achievements.
Understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.