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The UK and Covid-19: the tragedy of the road not taken

After his near-death experience, Boris Johnson seemed to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic and the need for change. But this moment was soon squandered.

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We should have known the year was going to go badly wrong in February. Speaking at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Boris Johnson warned that the newly refitted UK, ready to descend the slipway and set sail for the high seas of post-Brexit free trade, might, if we weren't careful, be scuppered by “new diseases such as coronavirus” triggering panic.

“At that moment,” Johnson said, “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion.”

The speech was memorable on many levels, most notably for its screaming exceptionalism, almost daring the virus to try it on our shores. Moreover, it established the “terms of trade” with that virus: our primary interest would be in not allowing it to affect commerce, because to do so would be to allow it to harm our supercharged idea of ourselves. Thus Brexit, Covid-19 and the concept of 2020s Britishness were grotesquely and cartoonishly conjoined. It did not bode well.

The Greenwich speech’s vision of thrilling free trade was rapidly to disappear from the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. If it didn't seem laughable at the time, it certainly does now, as we see the reality of a hard Brexit’s imminent arrival. At that time, he was still boasting about the EU withdrawal agreement – “Yes, it did turn out as I prophesied, to be oven ready” – and sagely extolling the peace-dividends of trade harmony – “The more freely goods cross borders, the less likely it is that troops will ever cross borders”.

But, if the "epic sea voyage" rhetoric of Brexit was soon to run aground on the rocks of reality, the terms of trade with Covid-19 remained – and remain – tragically unchanged.

We all know about those fateful days in March, when, with the whole country clamouring for a lockdown, Johnson appeared caught in the headlights, lamely advising people to work from home and, comically, to “avoid cruises”. In those early days, we saw what was happening in Italy and we begged the government to get ahead. My partner and I decided we should withdraw our kids from school, whether or not it was legal to do so. We consulted the school, and they sympathised. The deputy head confessed he had worries of his own, being diabetic.

That same day I dealt with necessary affairs to start a self-imposed lockdown, including going to the shops and post office. I did so with anxiety, fearing every touch of a card machine, every use of a communal pen to sign forms. But I was wrong to fear for my own health. I should have feared for the health of others: I already had coronavirus. That evening, I began to feel unwell, and wound up in hospital ten days later. I survived to tell the tale, dear reader, and suffered far less than others, but the experience was, shall we say, Not Recommended.

[See also: The eleven days that may have tragically cost the UK in the fight against coronavirus]

On release from hospital, I learned that the school’s brilliant deputy head had also been infected and was in intensive care. There were to be many anxious weeks before we heard of his discharge. As is now beyond dispute, we locked down far too late, and the deputy head’s lungs, and mine – not to mention circa 75,000 British deaths – are testament to that.

We’ve all ridden the rollercoaster ever since. The memorable moments are many and tragic and infuriating. But, as I reflect on the year, and ask myself how, and when, it might have gone differently, one moment stands out.

For me, it was when Johnson himself had a brush with the brink, and came out of hospital knowing what I know, and what our deputy head and so many others know: that Covid-19 is real, it’s terrible and that it doesn’t just affect the old, whose lives matter (some seem to think) a wee bit less anyway. This is a disease that will see your exceptionalist dare and raise you. This is a disease that says, “Go on, then, show me just how much of a superhero you can really be.

And, remarkably, Johnson appeared to step up. I sometimes get involved with political messaging, and I’m not sure I could have done better than Johnson’s return-to-work statement outside Downing Street on 27 April had I penned it myself. It marked what looked like a turning point, a new understanding, a new tone, a new contract with the British people:

“I want to serve notice now,” Johnson said, “that these decisions will be taken with the maximum possible transparency. And I want to share all our working, our thinking, my thinking, with you, the British people.”

It was an uncharacteristically sober and mostly gimmick-free statement, emphasising the simple, in-it-together, shared humanity of our plight. Politically it was remarkable because it was tantamount to admitting that the previous style of his government had been wrong – that decisions had not been made with transparency, and that the working had not been shared. The logic of that mea culpa was that the resultant decisions had been wrong.

This, I dared to hope, was Johnson admitting that the “supercharged champion” exceptionalist approach to handling the virus had been misguided, and was about to change. From now on, the truth, however unpalatable, would be shared with us. Any necessary actions in response to that truth would be clearly explained and promptly carried out. Macho posturing, caped crusading and populist denial of reality were to be things of the past.

This virus can come for any of us, seemed to be the message, and we need to reset the way we deal with it. Gone would be the days of “sending coronavirus packing” in 12 weeks and lies about PPE being in secure, plentiful supply. Gone, obviously, would be the days of ignoring the scientists’ warnings. Gone would be the specious days of “balancing” the economic cost of mitigation measures against lives lost. Gone, even, would be the days of party politics in the handling of the virus.

“And, of course, we will be relying as ever on the science to inform us, as we have from the beginning, but we will also be reaching out to build the biggest possible consensus, across business, across industry, across all parts of our United Kingdom, across party lines, bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can, because I think that is no less than what the British people would expect.”

It was a unique moment when a Prime Minister, finally back from the grim (and, I can tell you, terrifying) front line of the national crisis, might actually have had the goodwill from all quarters to make such a shift. And here he was, apparently, making it.

[See also: How we will remember 2020?]

It was not, of course, to be. The moment when 2020 might have dispensed with post-truth politics and returned to facts and decency and promises to be kept was squandered. It took less than a week.

Matt Hancock, who, as his own side put it, was “not having a good crisis”, had had his own Damascene moment back at the beginning of April, after testing positive for Covid-19. His response had been of the “supercharged champion” school. For no reason other than machismo, he had committed himself to conducting 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month. It was unachievable, and he did not achieve it. The Tories considered throwing him under a bus, but when it came to it, they did what they do best, and doubled down. They massaged the figures. They defined capacity as “tests”. They got activists to request tests, then called tests sent in the post “tests done”. Through trickery and deception, they claimed victory. Johnson had made his statement promising transparency and a new deal with the British people on a Monday; by the following Friday, that promise had been spectacularly broken.

Since then, we know the story: the breathtaking failures of the private sector in testing, in tracing, in developing an app, in providing PPE. The equally breathtaking cronyism and the billions squandered. The “epidemiological illiteracy” of Eat Out To Help Out and exhortations to “get back to the office”; the cessation of public briefings; the redefinition of Covid-19 deaths, all conveying the misguided message that the danger was behind us. The reopening of schools and universities with no real preparedness; the dismissal of Sage’s warnings in September; the tacit support for (and covert entertainment of) libertarians and their insistence on the naive calculus of lockdowns vs economy; the countless refusals to act decisively and on time; the repeated over-promising and catastrophic under-delivering, of which the emerging Christmas catastrophe is perhaps the prime example. 

It’s a sorry tale. It began with the blinkers of Brexit bravado, as evidenced in Johnson's Greenwich speech, and it continued from there. His return-to-work statement in April could have changed it all. 

“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor, and so it follows that this is the moment of opportunity, this is the moment when we can press home our advantage.”

We could have pressed home that advantage. We could have been in this pandemic together. We could have followed Sage’s advice and arrested the advance of the second wave in September. We could have kept cases around 3,000 per day. Since mid-October, by which time the Sage-recommended lockdown would have ended, we have lost more than 23,000 people and cases have averaged over 15,000 a day (they were 33,364 at the last count). We could have learned from the error of our ways in March, and, in this second wave, been one of the stars of Europe. Instead, our star has not risen but fallen, just as our star has symbolically fallen from the EU flag. Perhaps Johnson’s conflation of Brexit, coronavirus and contemporary Britishness was, tragically, right after all.

[See also: A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory]

Dominic Minghella is a television screenwriter and producer