Boris Johnson yesterday blamed the rise in coronavirus infections on public complacency rather than the government’s failure to test, saying that discipline on social distancing and hygiene measures had “frayed” over the summer.
The prime minister accepted that some people had had “bad experiences” with the test and trace system set up by the government to keep the Covid-19 virus under control, and said he wanted to apologise for that.
But he suggested that responsibility for the sharp uplift in cases over the past month lay with the general public, who had lost the “muscle memory” of the kind of social distancing and hygiene measures that drove down infections in the spring.
In a round of interviews with BBC regional TV programmes, Mr Johnson said: “In March and April, in Scotland and across the country, we came together and got the virus down.
“Alas, what happened since then is that everyone got a bit complacent and a bit blasé about transmission and the rules on social distancing weren’t perhaps obeyed in the way they could have been or enforced in the way they could have been and that’s why we’ve had to put in measures both in Scotland and elsewhere to bring it down again.”
Challenged over whether a lack of testing had allowed the virus to get out of control, Mr Johnson replied: “That’s not the reality. The nation came together in March and April. What happened over the summer was a bit of sort of fraying of people’s discipline and attention to those rules.”
He accepted that there had been problems with the test and trace system, which has never met its targets for identifying contacts of coronavirus patients and telling them to self-isolate.
“Of course there are people who’ve had bad experiences and I apologise for the bad experiences that people have had with NHS Test and Trace,” said Mr Johnson. But he added: “It is a fact that we are conducting more tests than any other European countries, 20 million people have been tested.”
He said that cases were now rising in London, after a period in which the capital largely avoided the second wave seen in the north of England.
“Alas! Because we came together as a country, we got the numbers down and I’m afraid some of the muscle memory has faded,” he said.
Asked if he took responsibility for cutting testing in London, the prime minister replied: “I, of course, take full responsibility for everything the Government has done.”
Mr Johnson – who defended his adviser Dominic Cummings against demands for his resignation for breaching lockdown – declined to say whether suspended SNP MP Margaret Ferrier should resign her seat after attending parliament with coronavirus.
Asked whether he was worried about MPs or advisers breaking the rules, he said: “I think everybody should stick to the rules and that’s what they are there for. We’ve seen they did make a huge difference. Because everybody stayed home and protected the NHS, we saved many thousands of lives. I’ve got absolutely no doubt about that and we can do that again this time around.”
Mr Johnson said that the government was “keeping a very careful eye” on coronavirus cases.
“We are trying to perform this careful balancing act of keeping education going and keeping as much of the economy going as we can,” he said. “So it relies very much on people collectively doing the right thing.”