Isabel Hardman

Who is in charge of the government?

Who is in charge of the government?
Photo by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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Boris Johnson is still officially recuperating from coronavirus at Chequers and is ‘not doing government work’, according to No. 10. But he is starting to do some activities that sound distinctly work-related. 

He will be having an audience with the Queen over the phone this week, and will also be phoning President Trump on Tuesday to thank him for his wishes when he was in the hospital and to get an update on the G7 response to the crisis. But the Downing Street line remains that ‘he isn’t doing government work but he is getting updates on the situation’.

So though these are signs that Johnson is starting to do a little more as he recovers, Dominic Raab remains in charge as his deputy. The First Secretary of State will chair a cabinet meeting on Thursday and will also take Prime Minister’s Questions as part of the new hybrid virtual House of Commons on Wednesday. 

Johnson will continue to follow his doctors’ advice about his return to work but one effect in the meantime of his absence is that some people are looking around to blame someone for the shortages of personal protective equipment and the fact that the government’s testing programme isn’t even halfway to the capacity needed for it to hit 100,000 tests a day next week, let alone carry out the tests themselves. 

Downing Street revealed on Tuesday that while there is now capacity for 39,250 tests, only 19,316 took place yesterday. The Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted that ‘we are absolutely standing by that target’ of 100,000 daily tests, but was unable to explain the chasm between capacity and take up. He merely said that ‘we want the capacity to be used’ and pointed to the efforts that have been made to try to get more people to undergo these tests. There have been hostile briefings against Health Secretary Matt Hancock for just making up the 100,000 figure (this wouldn’t be a surprise: many government targets turn out to be based on back-of-a-napkin calculations, such as the ‘tens of thousands’ net migration target that plagued the Tories for a decade). But it’s worth remembering that Johnson himself said on 25 March that the government was hoping to reach 250,000 daily tests. 

In Westminster, it’s almost as easy to find someone else to blame as it is to make up a random target, but those circling Hancock would do well to remember that when the Prime Minister returns, he will find he has questions of his own to answer about tests.