Why Boris Johnson may well get away with failure on Covid-19

Even now, polls show the public are more likely to blame each other than the government for the UK’s pandemic catastrophe.


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The human mind struggles to understand large numbers. We can count groups of up to four or five, and perhaps tell the difference between dozens and hundreds, at a glance. Beyond that, though, it's just “lots”. The ancient Greeks built their entire civilisation without even having a word for numbers bigger than “myriad”: that meant only 10,000.

Ten times that many Britons have now died of Covid-19: a number literally inconceivable. Since the start of 2020, around one in every 678 people who live in this country has died from the pandemic, a list of casualties larger than the entire population of places such as Watford or Lincoln. The list of the dead would fill the pages of one of the later Harry Potter novels; it would take more than a day to read all the names out loud.

It is uncomfortably difficult to find historic horrors on this scale. It is nearly 30 times the entire death toll from the Troubles. It’s a much closer thing, but Covid has likely killed more people in the UK than the Great Plague of 1665-66, too. Since Queen Victoria came to the throne, the only events with higher British death tolls are the two World Wars, the Spanish flu, and another flu pandemic in the early 1890s. As the pandemic is still raging, the latter is all but certain to be overtaken.

“It's hard to compute the sorrow contained in that grim statistic,” Boris Johnson said on Tuesday (26 January), shortly after the passing of the 100,000 milestone was announced. But he sounded more uncomfortable than sorrowful, like a man reading an autocue who desperately wished he could lighten the mood with a joke. His hair was unbrushed; his suit dishevelled. From another politician this might have seemed like the stress of the crisis taking its toll. From a man who's been using these tricks to careful effect for 20 years, it came unnervingly close to disrespecting the dead.

“I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and of course as Prime Minister I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,” he said later. “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.” But those two sentences contradict each other: taking responsibility requires the acknowledgement of errors, rather than a Panglossian insistence that nothing could be done, as if one of the world’s worst death rates was as inevitable as the weather.

[see also: Leader: An avoidable catastrophe]

And Johnson’s government clearly has not done all it can. It has repeatedly waited until the last moment before taking measures such as locking down or cancelling the Christmas easing. As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak has refused to adequately fund sick pay, which would make it possible for people to self-isolate without loss of earnings; but he did champion the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which did little for the hospitality industry but performed wonders for the virus.

Johnson has never admitted any of this, let alone showed a willingness to learn from his mistakes. His version of “taking responsibility” involves little more than words.

[see also: Matt Hancock understands, unlike the PM, that in a health crisis, there’s no “best of both worlds”]

Even the words are inadequate. In other press conferences, when members of the public have mentioned bereavements, Boris Johnson has forgotten the most basic of courtesies and acknowledged their loss, leaving technical advisers such as chief medical officer Chris Whitty to do it for him. I have never been able to shake the suspicion that nothing else is quite as real to Johnson as his own desires and ambitions. It's hard for any of us to grasp the full horror of 100,000 deaths. For a man used to viewing other people as extras and events as a mere backdrop to his own story, it must be hardest of all.

Perhaps he doesn’t need to. The front pages of the right-wing press on Wednesday showed Johnson with his head lowered, suggesting a sense of grief and regret entirely lacking from his actual performance. In reality, of course, he was doing nothing more respectful than reading his notes, but it seems unlikely to matter. Surveys still show the public are more likely to blame each other than the government for the recent explosion in Covid cases. Labour has closed the gap, but the Tories are still leading in most polls.

I’m not sure what's more appalling: Boris Johnson’s transparent disinterest in the vast, incomprehensible tragedy he has overseen – or the fact he may well get away with it. 

[see also: Almost a year into his leadership, is Keir Starmer stalling?]

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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