With calls being voiced for journalists not to criticise the Government over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, Otto English explores why this has never been more essential.
By all accounts, the Prime Minister has been chastened by his brush with death. One MP told the Times last week that he is “in a funny place” and “quite frightened”. “To find himself floored like this has got into his head,” they said, adding that the experience had left him “really tentative”.
That tentativeness was apparent as Boris Johnson delivered his return-to-work speech outside No. 10 Downing Street, in which he described COVID-19 as an invisible mugger and sounded a cautious note about returning to normal even as he began to forge a myth of national unity and resolve.
Johnson isn’t the only senior figure to have contracted the Coronavirus. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock who also came down with the illness has apparently been similarly ‘dovish’ with regard to lifting the restrictions. That take stands in stark contrast with the hawkish Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. Increasingly concerned about the gargantuan risks facing the economy, this troika has been pushing for a relaxing of measures and a reopening of businesses.
In this they are supported by a growing clamour of right-wing media voices – including Johnson’s former employer, the Telegraph. That newspaper celebrated his return to work by deliberately taking one of his quotes about it being time to “fire up the engines of the economy” out of context and placing it in inch-high letters on its front page.
Johnson is faced with an unenviable political catch-22. Keep the lockdown in place and cause long-term economic misery, mass unemployment and all the attendant fall-out; or end it and risk second, third or more potentially bigger waves of the Coronavirus that will only prolong the agony and make matters worse.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
The Day the Fun Stopped
Having won his triumphant majority in December, Boris Johnson attained his lifelong ambition to be king – if not of the world, then at least of all he surveyed.
His plan was to “Get Brexit Done” by saying he had, and then to get on with the important stuff like building pointless bridges to Ireland and, well, it wasn’t very clear what else but it was going to be fun. Instead, this horrible plague appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and nearly took his life.
You would have to be singularly callous not to welcome Johnson’s recovery. Likewise you would have to be exceptionally idiotic to believe that, having contracted the illness, the Prime Minister is somehow above the fray and that all criticism of him should wait until once the pandemic is over.
But, unbelievably, there are voices – including the broadcaster Iain Dale and a gaggle of ever vociferous journalists and commentators who buzz around the fringes of the right –who believe just that. One of those, the anti-woke comedian Konstantin Kisin even wrote a much shared tweet earlier this week, addressing journalists on behalf of the ‘general public’ in which he said: “We understand that unexpected crises are impossible to manage without making mistakes. We’re not interested in blaming our leaders, we want them to succeed.”
The implication was that Johnson should simply be left to get on with solving the emergency with his team and that holding him or them to account was somehow a distraction from the business of the day. Critics should shut up and go away and save their mealy mouthed words for another time.
Well, frankly, stuff that.
You don’t need to wait for inquiries or history books or post-mortems to realise that Johnson heads a Government that has caused the unnecessary sickness and deaths of thousands of people. That might be uncomfortable to read but it is true. On current form, this country looks set to have the highest mortality rates in Europe and the buck for that stops with the Prime Minister.
A Dangerous Circus
The UK had more warning than almost any other country; the chance to witness what was coming, to learn from our neighbours, to collaborate with our EU partners. But, even as the tsunami spread across the planet, Downing Street twiddled its thumbs, whistled and looked the other way.
The key to tackling a pandemic is to respond swiftly. Johnson did nothing of the sort. The opportunity to slow COVID-19 in its tracks – as Germany, New Zealand and other countries seem to successfully have done – was frittered away.
The first two cases of the virus were identified in the UK on 31 January – the night Brexiters were celebrating the return of their sovereignty in Trafalgar Square. In the weeks that followed, even as concerns were raised about the spread of the disease, Johnson and his team went about business as usual.
In late February, as the Coronavirus tightened its stranglehold, Johnson’s Brexit Government was ramping up the heat on ‘foreigners’ including the many thousands who work in our NHS, with the Home Secretary Priti Patel proudly unveiling her ‘Australian-style points-based system’ for immigration. That move received a frosty response from the Royal College of Nursing, the chief executive of which, Dame Donna Kinair, said: “We are concerned that these proposals from the Government will not meet the health and care needs of the population.”
But her fears were brushed aside.
Between 24 January and 2 March, as the scale of the crisis slowly became accepted, five COBRA crisis meetings were held and the Prime Minister missed them all. In the same period, Johnson enjoyed a two-week break with girlfriend Carrie Symonds at his grace and favour mansion Chevening and made sure to take all of his weekends off.
Instead of swinging into action, Johnson put his feet up on the sofa, played with his pet dog Dilyn and finalised his divorce. He prevaricated, obfuscated, made inappropriate jokes about ‘Operation Last Gasp’ and left the decision-making to others – including the fateful choice of pursuing the initial approach of ‘herd immunity’. That wrong-headed, singularly dangerous strategy will have cost thousands of lives.
Johnson and team might be reckless and inept but they’re not stupid and they know that eventually questions will start to be asked about their response and comparisons made with other countries. To that end, the Government is already seeking to apportion culpability elsewhere. According to the Financial Times, ministers are keen to park blame with Public Health England and the Civil Service. That in turn has led frustrated officials to start keeping “detailed personal diaries to record the advice they offered to Mr Johnson and his ministers”.
In light of this, the suggestion that Johnson should not be held to account is a steaming pile of unmitigated nonsense.
But none of this should come as any surprise. For years, Johnson aped Winston Churchill, yet faced with an actual crisis worthy of wartime leadership he has blown it. As the Prime Minister announced his return to work, he sought to recapture some of that wartime mystique by attempting to embed two myths in the national consciousness. The first was one of ‘collective national resolve’ – that nebulous Blitz spirit that would see us through, as always. The second, and the more pernicious of the two, was that the strategy the Government has so far pursued has been a “success”. The very suggestion would be preposterous if the times were not so serious, but there in essence lies the problem.
Britain has elected a clown to the highest office in the land – and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore.