Non-apologies for coronavirus deaths are not good enough

The UK government blusters its way through excuses for its poor response to coronavirus. It must be held accountable.

Non apologies opinion priti patel/James Melville [Will Oliver/EPA-EFE]
The UK's Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves after a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, in London on March 17, 2020 [Will Oliver/EPA-EFE]

“I am sorry if people feel there have been failings.” This was the non-apology issued earlier this week by the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in response to anger at the government’s failure to contain coronavirus.

More than 12,000 people have now died from coronavirus in the UK, which has the steepest death rate curve in Europe, with more fatalities on a daily basis than any other country on the continent.

The UK government’s approach to the outbreak has evolved rapidly. Its initial approach of not introducing a lockdown and, instead hoping enough people would catch the virus to create a “herd immunity” was severely criticised. When it realised this was going horribly wrong, with the number of deaths rising every day, it hastily retreated to its current approach and the UK has been locked down since March 23.

This may well have been too little, too late but, far from acknowledging this or answering difficult questions from the media about it in its daily briefings, the government is offering very little in terms of accountability or transparency at all.

Serious questions have been posed about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in care homes and hospitals, but these are deflected or go unanswered.

People are now dying at a horrific rate in the UK but the government’s decision to delay the start of a lockdown for seven weeks after the first case of coronavirus was reported in the UK on January 31 has not been explained. No clear reason has been given as to why the UK did not prepare or implement a mass testing-and-tracing programme in the early stages of the spread of the virus. 

During the government’s press briefing on Saturday, April 11, at which Home Secretary Priti Patel issued her now-infamous non-apology, she also managed to deflect any accountability at all from the government for its failure to protect NHS workers on the front line by providing PPE.

The day before, Health Secretary Matt Hancock declared at the press briefing that “we all share a responsibility for tackling this virus by, first and foremost, staying at home” while conveniently forgetting that the UK government allowed over 200,000 racegoers to attend Cheltenham Festival from March 10 to 13 even while the virus was starting to spread across the country.

Announcing his new plan to deliver personal protective equipment to front-line healthcare workers, Hancock went on to say that “everyone working in a critical role must get the PPE that they need” because “we owe it to them”.

But, again, he conveniently overlooked the fact that the very same government he represents has completely failed to deliver sufficient PPE for care homes and hospital staff. 

When asked at the same press briefing why international travellers from around the world are still able to fly into the UK’s airports – where no coronavirus checks, tests or quarantines are being carried out – Hancock responded by saying, “We follow the science.”

Yet, there was still no mention of what science the government is “following” which justifies keeping open arrivals at airports without checks and tests.

Time and time again, the UK government has dodged accountability with non-responses and deflection answers to the questions being asked of it. This is the politics of obfuscation.

The UK government now faces an increasingly long set of questions as to why the country has one of the worst death rate curves in the world, but right now, it is not providing answers to those questions. 

Government representatives at the daily coronavirus briefings should spend less time deflecting difficult questions with simplistic enigmatic answers and instead do what Boris Johnson stated on March 29 that it would do: Start “levelling with the British people” – about why the government locked down too late, has provided insufficient PPE to medical staff and failed to commit to a mass testing programme.

Thousands of people are dying from coronavirus in the UK because the government left it too late to respond to the crisis, and still there are no clear answers about why this has happened.

It is time to stop dancing to this tune of “we must all pull together and support the government at this time” and instead start asking for hard answers. As that is the only way that we will get decisive action to end this crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.