That Boris Johnson was wholly unsuited to being prime minister in the middle of a crisis should not come as a surprise to anyone. His first day’s evidence to the Covid inquiry yesterday (6 December) will not have changed the narrative.
Anyone who has been following the inquiry will be aware of the former prime minister’s inability to understand complexity, to comprehend data, to think strategically and to reach a decision and stick to it. Anyone who has read the accounts of his time in office more generally will be aware of his flaws as an administrator, as would anyone who spoke to those working closely with him at the time. Or to those who paid much attention to him during his pre-Downing Street career.
Johnson was out of his depth and horribly exposed by the pandemic. He might normally have got away with taking ten days off during the February recess but not that year. At the point when Whitehall needed galvanising, the prime minister (the only person who can really do this across the whole of government) was absent or disengaged. The typical primary school pupil was more intellectually curious about the virus than the then PM.
In fairness, those early decisions were immensely difficult. We had no experience of lockdown and the government did not know how the public would react in the short and medium term. There was no guarantee that a vaccine was at all imminent and many scientists only concluded that a lockdown was necessary relatively late. A conscientious and engaged prime minister would have more actively questioned the assumptions and arguments, but there is a very good chance that we might have ended up at the same place and at the same time even with a properly functioning head of government.
The same cannot be said for the events of the autumn in 2020, which will be addressed today, Johnson’s second day as a witness. There, Johnson is culpable. The advice was clear and the prime minister appeared to have accepted that a lockdown needed to be imposed in late September. At this point, Johnson attended a Battle of Britain memorial service and returned with a sense of British exceptionalism. No, we were not going to have another lockdown. The scientific advisers predicted that by the end of October deaths would reach 400 a day. When that happened, Johnson inevitably changed his mind. Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), calculated to the inquiry that 20,000-25,000 people died of Covid that autumn. The vast majority of those deaths could have been avoided had we locked down earlier.
Johnson was erratic and unpredictable. He presided over a weak cabinet and allowed a toxic atmosphere to prevail in Downing Street. He was not, however, alone in his thinking. Lockdown scepticism was a growing force in the Tory party and among the right-of-centre newspapers in the autumn of 2020, and no doubt this swayed his thinking until much damage was done.
Holding Johnson to account is a valuable activity. Those Conservative MPs who were complicit in him becoming party leader should feel ashamed. But the lesson that we should not put Boris Johnson in a position of responsibility is a very specific one and, one would like to think, widely understood.
The bigger worry is that if Britain was to confront a similar situation again, it would be harder for a future government to take the necessary action to suppress a virus. There is a growing sense, particularly on the right, that the lockdowns were a mistake, that they have caused many long-term problems and should not be repeated. The Covid inquiry, however, is viewed as having failed to explore such fundamental questions by focusing on office politics.
This may be a minority view but it is a dangerous one. In the US, the attitude to Covid restrictions became a far more partisan issue, making it harder to suppress the virus. It followed that right-leaning counties in America seem to have had higher death tolls than left-leaning counties (all other factors taken into account).
The dysfunction in the Johnson administration does matter and does need to be exposed. But the inquiry should look properly at these bigger arguments. This is an argument we generally hear from lockdown sceptics, in the belief that they will be vindicated. Most scientists think otherwise but there is a case for taking these anti-lockdown arguments seriously and putting them under scrutiny.
Some of the arguments will quickly be exposed as flaky. One cannot credibly blame lockdowns for all the economic harm while simultaneously arguing that they were unnecessary because the public would have stopped social interactions anyway. It was ending social interactions (involuntary or otherwise) that both reduced the spread of the virus and damaged the economy. Lockdown critics give the impression that the treatment of non-Covid patients could have continued as usual, ignoring the probability that, had Covid been more prevalent, the NHS would have been overwhelmed and the treatment of non-Covid conditions would have deteriorated further. On school closures, however, the arguments are more finely balanced.
The inquiry is at a relatively early stage and these arguments need to be addressed. The Johnson administration’s defects may be alarming but a bigger problem if we face another pandemic is that too many believe his mistake was following scientific advice. It is a belief that may be wrong-headed but should be addressed.
[See also: The Tories are lucky to be rid of Boris Johnson]