Boris Johnson is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time

The Guardian, by Polly Toynbee
20th April 2020

The Sunday Times revelations confirm all our worst fears: the prime minister’s handling of coronavirus has been shockingly complacent.

Everything unravels with almost indecent speed. After a brush with death, the prime minister is still recovering at Chequers when one of his many supportive newspapers drops a grenade straight down his Elizabethan chimney. No period of grace and convalescence: the Sunday Times didn’t even wait for him to stumble back to Downing Street before firing off its devastating attack on his cavalier incompetence over the coronavirus outbreak.

What makes the insiders’ account so devastating is that it chimes with everything everyone already knows about Boris Johnson’s character. An unnamed “senior adviser” to Downing Street “broke ranks” to say: “What you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

Exaggerated or not, hearing that the prime minister took two weeks’ holiday at Chevening as the virus began to spread in the UK will stick in the public memory. Nor will anyone forget his cheery 3 March boast that he was still shaking hands with virus-sufferers. Nor that he was at Twickenham for a crowded rugby match on 7 March. But above all, he missed not one but all of the first five Cobra meetings on the gathering crisis. Gordon Brown chaired every single Cobra meeting on foot and mouth – when only the health of animals was at stake. Johnson is charged with wasting 38 days before taking serious action against an epidemic approaching in plain sight. In his mind, China was far away. And even when Italy suffered the full horror – despite being better prepared, with more beds and more intensive care units – well, that was just Italy.

No one elected Boris Johnson to cope with a plague. The small group of ageing activists in the Tory party selected him for his Brexitry – and they liked the cut of his cheery jib. He was fun, upbeat, popular and, above all, he had swung the Brexit vote to victory. Michael Gove reported on Sunday that the prime minister is “in cheerful spirits”, but that’s bafflingly inappropriate. Cheerful? About what? Good croquet on the blossom-strewn Chequers lawns? There are scores of dead doctors and nurses among some 20,000 dead citizens, and rising. Here is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time – the polar opposite of Winston Churchill’s arrival in power.

What makes Johnson supremely unsuited to this particular darkest hour is his natural antipathy towards the state. In a speech mainly on Brexit in Greenwich on 3 February, he attacked Wuhan-style lockdowns: “We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation.” He went on: “Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.” He was that government, along with Donald Trump. “Herd immunity” was Johnson’s policy until it became politically unsustainable. Thereafter, incompetence.

The Financial Times’ analysis of bungled ventilator procurement is a sobering read: it says the government called in non-specialists to make up the shortfall in units and ended up with products unfit for Covid-19 patients. And the Guardian revealed that, under austerity, there was a deliberate 40% cut in emergency personal protective equipment stockpiled for an epidemic.

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, is calling for publication of the findings of a three-day epidemic simulation in 2016, Exercise Cygnus, which uncovered a critical shortage of intensive care beds, morgue capacity and PPE. The government is refusing freedom of information requests, so that may have to wait for the inevitable public inquiry. As will final details of the failure to test, trace, isolate and treat every single case, which the World Health Organization now says should be a pre-condition before countries loosen their lockdowns. None of these things are in place in the UK, nowhere near.

Yesterday the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers finally lost patience with government dishonesty over wishful targets and plans: just tell us plain facts, they demanded.

No government could be fully ready for this: future lessons will be learned from South Korea and others. But this we know: our government is singularly unsuited to the task and unfit for purpose. In his absence, Johnson’s lack of seriousness is reflected in his abysmal choice of cabinet, selected for all the wrong reasons. Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss and the rest were chosen for Brexitry and hatred of the state. Read Britannia Unchained, the compilation of their collected thinking, to see into their souls. There’s no evidence their worldview has changed.

Dominic Cummings was brought in by Johnson to swing a wrecking ball at Whitehall, local councils, the BBC and anything that smelled of good government. No surprise that those who don’t believe in the state have made the worst possible fist of running it in a crisis. Brexit embodied their mindset: break away, break things and disrupt. When the prime minister returns, his single most reassuring act would be to prolong immediately the Brexit transition: yet last week No 10 said it would reject an extension, even if the EU offered it. If Johnson blunders on as the economy collapses, then we shall truly know we are in the hands of fanatics.

Ultimately, a public inquiry will examine the state of the country when the virus struck. How 10 years of austerity crippled every service designed to protect and defend. How the Andrew Lansley reforms blew the NHS into fragments; social care was stripped bare; and local government, responsible for public health, was shredded. Even the army was hobbled.

The prime minister can wax sentimental about the NHS, but it’s only one artery of public service that is the lifeblood of good government. As parliament returns, it’s time for MPs to challenge the failures of these renegades.