Today
Mon 1 March 2021

In our individual acts of remembrance we can honour the memories of all those lost – something Boris Johnson has no moral authority to offer any leadership on, says Otto English

The UK passed another depressing milestone this week. Thus far, 104,000 lives have been lost to the Coronavirus in what is now, undoubtedly, the greatest ongoing national tragedy of modern times.

The true death toll will be much higher. There will be many more thousands of us bereaved before we reach the end of this national catastrophe. 

The UK now has the dubious distinction of having the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. 1,475 people per million of the population have been taken by the pandemic. It has killed more than two times as many people as all of the civilian lives lost in World War Two.

To mark the event, the dishevelled Prime Minister once again stood in front of the nation at a briefing, shuffling his notes and making his excuses. 

Offering his “deepest condolences” to the families of the bereaved he muttered that “we did everything we could” and promised that, when we come out of this crisis, “we will come together as a nation to remember everyone we lost and to honour the selfless heroism of all those on the frontline who gave their lives to save others”. 

Boris Johnson, the ersatz Sir Winston Churchill, would have us believe that this is leadership. That having ‘done all he could’ he will lead us onwards in mourning. That none of this was his fault. That events were beyond his control. That those horrendous statistics and those death rates – the worst of any nation in the world – have nothing to do with him. That it has all just been bad luck.  

But it hasn’t been bad luck – it has been bad leadership. 


An Unconventional Enemy

Back in January 2020 Britain had the luxury of time and the chance to prepare. The warning lights were flashing long before the virus arrived on these shores, long before the first lockdown was declared, and long before the first graves were dug.  

But, instead of planning, the Government dithered, looked at the opinion polls and dithered again. 

Ever since, this muddled administration and its scruffy, indolent populist head boy has given out befuddled advice and mixed messages and displayed chaotic leadership, while all the time failing fundamentally to stop the virus in its tracks.  

Boris Johnson has been the drunken driver on the back seat of his own bus, wondering out loud what there is to be done, as the vehicle careers wildly down a mountain pass. 

And now he wishes to lead us in remembrance of the dead.  

One curious aspect of the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic – which took more lives between 1918 and 1920 than both world wars – was that, having been and gone, people sought to forget it. There were few memorials built in its aftermath and people instead conflated the event with the First World War and sought, in Britain and elsewhere, to remember the ‘glorious dead’ instead of the unglamorous victims of the flu.  

There was perhaps a reason for that. The war could be made sense of. There were good guys and bad guys and we were the good guys. There was something poetic and heroic in the narrative of it all. Brave young boys, marching off to fight for King and Country, to protect the nation from the excesses of the Kaiser and his unhinged race of barbarians.  A life lost in war had purpose by the logic of 1918. And there was purpose too in state remembrance.  

A pandemic is quite different. It cannot be fought conventionally with armies and tanks and – despite what many in the Conservative Party might believe – it cannot be defeated by slapping Union Jacks on syringes, clapping, or turning the whole thing into a competition with our EU neighbours.

Tackling an outbreak like this risks making a government unpopular. It involves hard choices and hard work. It goes against every instinct in the Boris Johnson playbook. The old Etonian likes gestures and applause. But you can’t simply gesture at a pandemic and hope it will go away. 

The cost has been appalling.  


The Many Victims of COVID

It is easy to forget that, behind every statistic, is a name, a person and a story. A life lived, a human being loved and an often painful and premature death.

The loss in many cases has been made much worse because loved ones cannot visit, hold hands or say their goodbyes. It has been devastating for millions of us. 

Many, but by no means all, of those who have died have been elderly, infirm, poor or members of ethnic minorities and it is tempting to ponder whether things would have been the same if this illness had picked off the rich, the privileged and working-aged taxpayers instead. 

But, of course, the virus has had many victims in addition to the dead. Millions have suffered the full devastating effects of the illness. Hundreds of thousands have found themselves in intensive care units fighting for their lives. Many thousands may have Long COVID – a condition still not fully understood – and face uncertainty and long-term health complications.  

And there have been other victims too. The millions who have lost their jobs. Almost all of the rest of us have had lives halted, disrupted and thrown into chaos. Education has been devastated and matters have not been helped by the ‘one foot in and one foot out’ game that the Government has played with schools, teachers and students. Childhood has been upended, teenage years ruined. The mental health cost of the pandemic is surely a ticking time bomb. 

Unlike in a war, there will be no Armistice Day for the virus because COVID is now with us and here to stay. But, when the immediate worst of it is over, it is right that we seek to remember the victims taken from us unnecessarily. And also to commemorate those who fought it on the frontline.

The paramedics, doctors, nurses and care staff who made the difference and risked – and sometimes lost – their lives in the process.  The teachers who tried to get our children through it all. The police and other emergency services. The volunteers who manned food banks and all of those who in ways big and small brought help and aid and comfort to those most in need. 


Remember Why They Died

Some have already taken the first steps of remembrance.

Last July, in Hove, someone placed 44,602 stones on the grass beside the seafront, representing each of the people who had then died in the pandemic.

Near my own home here in south-east London, someone has put up a makeshift memorial on a fence near the hospital encouraging people to “fight like hell for the living” and “remember the dead”. 

In Shropshire, farmer Tim Ashton erected a standing stone in October in memory and reflection of the dead, to mark the event and give visitors a space to reflect. He was moved to create the monument “at a very low moment” after a conversation with a vicar who had spent her weeks comforting the bereaved and burying the dead.  

Tim was inspired by other standing stones and barrows that have stood as monuments on these islands for thousands of years. 

“Rocks don’t exclude people,” he told me in a fascinating telephone conversation. Memorials like these can, in his own words, “show that we noticed”. They are inclusive. There’s no cross or symbolism to them and thus, Tim believes, they can invite people in to reflect and remember.  

The Shropshire standing stone was erected with the involvement of “nine faiths and none” and Tim hopes that it might act as encouragement to other communities seeking to pause and mark this tragedy. He estimates that the cost of putting it up was less than £1,000 and that any community with the will to do it could follow suit. 

Tim Ashton’s memorial. Photo: Tim Ashton

As we part, he says something striking: “Anyway, why do we need the permission of the Government to remember?” 

It is a pertinent point. This tragedy after all lies in no small measure at its feet. Why should we allow the architects of chaos to take back control of the fall-out?  

Boris Johnson, of course, did not create the Coronavirus, but it was in his power, early on, to do something about it. The terrible toll of death. The bereaved families. The people suffering still and those who will continue to do so long after the pandemic has passed. The lost jobs. The paused lives. The social isolation. The economic crisis. All of it could have been managed better. 

In every case, whether he likes it or not, the buck stops, ultimately with the Prime Minister. His Government did not do “everything we could”. He and it failed.  

When the appropriate time comes for remembrance, remember we must. But let us remember too that responsibility for much of the loss of life rests ultimately with the people at the helm. If we have learned anything at all from this horrible experience it is that good leadership matters.

Our Prime Minister is wholly unsuited to the job. He has lost the moral right to lead the nation in mourning – and increasingly – on anything else. 

Thank youfor reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out about us

Our leading investigations include Brexit Bites, Empire & the Culture War, Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.


Support our journalists

To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.

But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees:

More stories filed under The Coronavirus Crisis

More stories filed under Argument