Boris Johnson knows he is responsible for Britain’s disastrous response to the coronavirus, it is time he admitted it.
Covid-19 has so far killed some 60,000 people in Britain. Many should still be alive. Our record is among the worst in the world. Boris Johnson may not be criminally guilty of this national disaster, but he is undeniably responsible for the decisions that led to it.
He must know it himself. Why else would he try so hard to dodge the blame?
The fate of Public Health England says it all. PHE is accountable to the ministers. If they had not liked his approach, they could have imposed another. They could have given it more money and more staff, hollowed out by years of cuts. They could have changed his mandate.
Instead, they make him the villain in an alternate reality drama whose heroes themselves would lead us to the Promised Land if only they weren’t undermined at every turn by obstructive officials and institutions bent on sabotage. Following the science means blaming the boffins. Anonymous fingers alternately pointed at officials; doctors, nurses and caregivers; NHS England; local authorities; previous governments; young people; and even Matt Hancock.
With it comes the complete repertoire of Trumpian techniques for deflecting attention from government mistakes. Manipulated statistics, misplaced goalposts, slammed dead cats, chosen fights, unleashed culture wars, hapless officials thrown under buses and, yes, lies, all to fuel the illusion that we are lucky enough to be led with so much. wisdom and determination.
But despite initial warnings, the Prime Minister slowly came to the bar. Until March, he flirted with a deadly collective immunity strategy, abandoned testing, traceability, and isolation (TTI), ruled out quarantine for arrivals from Covid-19 hotspots, and delayed lockdown: all this to the alarm of most independent public health professionals.
More follow-up. Abandonment of retirement homes, and the entire care sector, behind demands for a protective ring. Failure to contain shortages of protective clothing while refusing to believe that these are costing lives. When TTI took over, instead of being handed over to experienced local public health teams, it was contracted out to Serco, Sitel, Deloitte and G4S, under a false NHS flag and under the leadership of a former boss telecommunications unqualified and commercially outstanding, but politically reliable. . As you might expect, this has yet to provide the service we need.
Added to this is an approach to communication that undermines trust and confidence. Since the Prime Minister, those who speak for the government have been reactive, not proactive, evasive and not candid, condescending and not sympathetic. They said one thing one day and another the next. They didn’t come up with any plan, just slogans. Showers in listening and consultation, they will not trust those who have to implement their declarations, often at the last minute.
They showed no empathy for the victims of this pandemic and those most at risk. And when the push came in with the Cummings Northern Tour, it was doing what we say, not what we do.
The pandemic has stretched everyone. But the key choices have been political. A prime minister who insists on his cabinet’s slavish obedience and total control of No.10 can’t complain when the blame ends with him.
Every error has been warned. Each could have been mitigated if not avoided by applying basic principles of public health. From South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand to Germany and Ireland, leaders who have combined these principles with honesty and humility have consistently done better.
The public inquiry, it is to be hoped, will work legally through it all. But the Prime Minister has already taken it far enough to ensure that he can neither confront him in real time with the consequences of his decisions nor help us to draw urgent lessons. Meanwhile, the worst awaits us now as the nights roll in after a strange summer, possibly because of the virus itself, certainly because of its social and economic effects.
We urgently need a fall reset. We need a government and a prime minister who run our country without campaigning or chasing the headlines. We need them to speak to us with honesty and grace, to regain our trust and rally us around a credible plan.
Scotland rightly aims, with its zero Covid strategy, to eliminate community transmission of the virus. This should also be the plan in England. It should have been all the time. It is only when the daily fear of contagion is gone that people will find the confidence to bring our country fully back to life.
Prime Ministers’ hero Winston Churchill wrote: Recrimination about the past is about forcing more effective action at the present time. Boris Johnson urgently needs to apply this to his own performance. In short, he needs to take responsibility.
The British are the real heroes of this drama. They know that the prime minister’s job is thankless and that he almost died. Even now, after all they have endured, they will forgive and move on if only he can find the courage to own the choices he makes and the consequences for everyone.
Otherwise, at some cost, we will eventually find a way to overcome these consequences. But they will forever hang like an albatross around Boris Johnson’s neck.
John Ashton has been a senior civil servant and diplomat, and most recently a full-time caregiver. Her cousin John Ashton is a past president of the Faculty of Public Health and a regional physician. The latest book, Blinded by Corona, will be released by Gibson Square on October 1
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