It’s part of Britain’s national mythology that King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth remained at Buckingham Palace throughout the Blitz. This placed the royal couple in significantly more danger than they’d have faced at one of their other, less target-shaped castles, of course; but so important was fearless leadership believed to be for national morale that the powers that be decided to take the risk.
The day before last year’s general election, faced with an unexpected visit from Good Morning Britain, the UK’s brave Prime Minister Boris Johnson fearlessly hid in a fridge. I can’t help but wonder if that’s really the sort of leadership Britain needs in a national crisis.
I’m being unfair. The day of the fridge was, of course, long before the rise of coronavirus (you can have those titles for free, Netflix). Johnson’s spokespeople fervently denied that he was hiding in the fridge, even while he was literally hiding in the fridge live on ITV. And anyway, perhaps self-isolating in a low-temperature area with only your closest press aides for company will turn out to be the perfect way of slowing the progress of the infection. Perhaps this is exactly the sort of leadership that Britain needs.
Slowing coronavirus down is something, after all, that everyone is keen to do. On Monday 9 March the PM’s spokesman said that, while the UK was still in the “contain” phase of the government’s pandemic plan, it accepted that the virus would spread “in a significant way”. In other words, containment has failed – but since that’s a phrase that, when it comes to the risk of sparking national panic, is right up there with “Home Secretary Priti Patel”, the spokesman was understandably keen to avoid it.
If you want to know where all this is going, then Italy might provide some clues. At time of writing, it has recorded 12,462 cases and 827 deaths from coronavirus, and the whole country is on lockdown (no public gatherings, no schools open, and everything except supermarkets closed after 6pm) until 3 April. The UK, noted UCL’s Mark Handley in a widely circulated graph, is approximately 13.5 days behind.
This actually counts as reassuring, since France and German are only nine days behind, but nonetheless: that is not very long to do something about this. This generation of Tories has admittedly turned out to be better at winning elections than some of us gave them credit for. But that is not the same as being good at administration, at which they’ve been consistently awful.
Earlier this week, a video in which Johnson appeared to suggest we should “take it on the chin” and let coronavirus run its course went – I’m sorry – viral. It had been misleadingly edited, of course: this was actually the PM saying precisely what we shouldn’t do. But the baffling thing was not so much that people believed it, but that anyone had thought it worth bothering to manufacture evidence of the government’s uselessness.
Aside from fridgegate, the past few months have also seen the Prime Minister refuse to cut short a holiday to address what felt like a major international security crisis (the Soleimani assassination, remember that? It felt very big at the time), and declining to visit parts of the country hit by flooding until waters, and the risk of anyone being rude to him, had receded.
Health Secretary Matthew Hancock, meanwhile, is a man so competent that, despite a civil servant reportedly describing him as being “devoid of principle, transparently ambitious and pleased with himself beyond measure”, he’s universally known as a cuddly nerd. His big, bold move during the Tory leadership campaign was to abandon his attempt to be the great centrist hope and back the eventual winner in the hope of a good job. Said job turned out to be exactly the same one he already held, meaning he’d traded his entire reputation for precisely nothing.
This, to be fair, is a better deal than Brexit, and at least Hancock could see the sense in the UK remaining part of the EU’s pandemic early warning system. But Downing Street said no, on the grounds that it would weaken the UK’s hand in trade talks, and that this obviously matters more to them than public health.
And then on Wednesday morning the world woke up to two frightening ironies emanating from Westminster. One was that Chris Grayling – Chris Grayling – is set to be parachuted into the job of chair of the Commons intelligence committee, which we can only assume that someone, somewhere believes to be hilarious. The other was that health minister Nadine Dorries had coronavirus. The fact the disease was now circulating in SW1 itself did not lead anyone to wonder whether it might actually be a bad idea to pack nearly 650 MPs into an airless space not quite big enough for them, and the Budget went ahead as planned.
If there’s any small glimmer of – I use the word advisedly – hope here, it’s that, in the age of globalisation, the world is only as safe as its worst major government. The US is still stuck with labour laws that encourage sick people to go to work, a healthcare system that will deter them from getting treatment for fear of life-ruining bills, and a president who last week called for coronavirus sufferers to stay on a boat so that his country’s statistics didn’t get any worse. On the downside, we’re doomed. But on the upside, so is everybody else.