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22 November 2023

A blunderer in high office

The Covid Inquiry has revealed that Boris Johnson treated Covid with insouciance, even after its lethal potential was known.

By New Statesman

Three years ago, as the spectre of a Christmas lockdown haunted the country, Covid-19 presented a grave threat. Today it circulates freely among the population. All remaining legal restrictions were ended by the government in February 2022.

As with the rise in remote working, the deep scars left by the pandemic endure. Though the UK’s Covid-19 death toll of 231,000 no longer appears as extraordinary as it once did – data for deaths per hundred thousand of the population suggests the country’s performance relative to others was average – this is of little consolation to bereaved families. Meanwhile, an estimated two million people suffer from the debilitating symptoms of Long Covid. School attendance has never recovered: nearly one in four pupils was absent for 10 per cent of school sessions in autumn 2022, almost double the level in 2019. There are also the so-called ghost children who never returned to school.

For these reasons, the independent Covid-19 inquiry, which began in June 2023 and can compel witnesses to give evidence on oath, is essential. If the UK is to perform better in a future pandemic, it must learn the lessons of the past. One is that Britain should never again entrust a leader as reckless as Boris Johnson with high office. The inquiry’s early stages have confirmed all the worst suspicions about his chaotic premiership.

It was on 30 January 2020 that the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a public health emergency. Yet two months passed before the UK government imposed a lockdown, 14 days after Italy had done so. We now know that Mr Johnson did not have any meetings or receive any emails from his staff regarding Covid-19 from 14-24 February. During that period he was based at Chevening House (allegedly labouring to finish a biography of Shakespeare).

[See also: Who did Patrick Vallance think was looking after the nation’s children?]

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The prime minister, according to his former director of communications Lee Cain, believed at first that Covid-19 was “not a big deal” and that the “main danger is talking the economy into a slump”. Mr Johnson’s scepticism about lockdown was perhaps understandable: no leader should impose such draconian restrictions lightly. But truly unforgivable is the insouciance with which he continued to treat Covid-19 long after its lethal potential was known.

According to the former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, Mr Johnson referred to the virus in December 2020 as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”, part of the attitude that led to the UK’s calamitously late second lockdown. He was also “bamboozled” and “confused” by different types of Covid tests, modelling on school lockdowns and the concept of absolute and relative risk. Such ignorance is unfortunately far too common in a political class dominated by humanities graduates, even if Mr Johnson’s errors were more egregious than most. A basic grasp of maths and science should be a requirement for occupants of the highest office. The Chinese government, by contrast, is dominated by engineers and Stem graduates.

Rishi Sunak is also culpable. As chancellor he ignored scientists’ warnings that his “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme could help fuel a second wave of Covid-19 and, according to Mr Cummings, believed it was “OK” to “just let people die”. Mr Sunak promoted the false narrative that the government must choose between “saving lives” and “saving the economy”. In practice, the mishandling of the pandemic damaged both the health and wealth of the nation.

Yet scientists as well as politicians bear responsibility for the UK’s record. As our medical editor Dr Phil Whitaker has written, the scientific and medical establishment was “blindsided by the first wave” having prepared for the wrong pandemic: an influenza virus. Mr Vallance spoke in March 2020 of the need to “build up some kind of herd immunity” by seeking only to contain rather than to suppress Covid. Had this reasoning been followed it would have resulted in an even more forbidding death toll.

It was the UK’s rapid vaccination programme – a model of private/public innovation – that partially redeemed the government by reducing the mortality rate.

The pandemic was not an anomaly but a symptom of an age of risk. Infectious disease events will only become more common in an era of climate breakdown and globalisation. The next time the UK is threatened we must hope that we have more serious and capable leaders than Boris Johnson and his chums.

[See also: Keir Starmer needs a coherent plan for immigration]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style