Ask not for whom the plague bell tolls, Boris Johnson.
It tolls for thee.
A devastating new account of Year Covid exposes the Prime Minister’s utter failure to meet the nation’s greatest health crisis for a century.
His deadly delay in imposing lockdowns caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and brought heartbreak to families in every corner of the land.
Driven by Tory ideological obsession about the economy, he made the same mistake not once but three times – largely ignoring the scientific advice he pretended to follow.
His lethal trail of laziness, incompetence and over-confidence is laid bare in new book Failures of State, by investigative journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott.
They interviewed hundreds of key scientists, members of the Cabinet, doctors, nurses, care home managers, academics and bereaved families.
All agree: “the Prime Minister let us down.”
They also had inside info from a secret Downing Street political adviser, who disclosed the Prime Minister didn’t seem to “give a s**t.”
Pressure is mounting for an early public inquiry into the government’s handling of the “war on Covid,” as far-reaching as investigations into the Iraq War, Hillsborough and the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Boris Johnson is resisting demands for a date to be set, claiming that “the time isn’t right” in the middle of a pandemic.
But we may be coming to the endgame, and as restrictions are eased, it will become more difficult to delay naming a retired High Court judge to open an inquiry.
The question then may be: can he spin it out beyond the next election – which could be called early – to avoid fatal political fallout?
And who should chair it? I nominate Lady Hale, former Supreme Court judge who brought Bojo to book over his unlawful shutdown of Parliament.
The tribunal charge sheet is longer than the floppy-haired philanderer’s sex ‘n’violence novel, Seventy Two Virgins, which stars himself.
Failures of State is the first witness for the prosecution. When Johnson does take the stand, the authors foresee “grave questions” for a Prime Minister so fixated by Brexit that he only came to appreciate the extreme danger posed by the virus when it was too late.
They quote lawyers for the bereaved families, who say the Prime Minister’s actions during the pandemic leave the government vulnerable to civil claims for negligence and violation of human rights.
Lawyers further believe Johnson’s conduct could amount to “the criminal offence of gross negligence by manslaughter,” because he was aware of the correct strategy for preventing a second wave and sacrificed more lives by not following it.
The stakes in this still-unfolding tragedy are that high, yet it all began with typical Bojo theatricals more than a year ago, in a speech in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich on January 31 2020.
With Churchillian flourish, he warned of “a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that will go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary damage”.
At that moment, humanity would need a country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles, leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion” of free trade.
“I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
Far from becoming the Superman of Number Ten, within six weeks the Prime Minister would belatedly, reluctantly and against the libertarian dogma of a lifetime, preside over the first medically-rational lockdown of the British economy.
At first, “puppyish” Matt Hancock, the ambitious Health Secretary, claimed the risk from this strange new virus spreading from Wuhan, China, was “low.” Yet Chinese doctors suggested it could be as bad as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed 20 million people.
Ministers blithely insisted on business as usual. The government emergency committee – Cobra – met five times to consider what might happen if Covid-19 (as it was now named) reached the UK. SuperBoris never attended.
A Health Department insider admitted to the authors: “We missed the boat on testing and PPE. We did nothing. We just watched.”
In the aftermath of Brexit, ministers who had sneered at “experts” now demeaned those who warned of impending risk, disclosed the book’s Downing Street deep throat. “They had lost the ability to hear scientists.”
Worse, it felt like no-one was in charge, said the source. The Prime Minister’s closest colleagues worked on the principle that “if this was the big one, he might look like he gave a s**t. And he didn’t look like he did.
“He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. He didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
As the virus multiplied, so did the errors. Currying favours for a trade deal. Johnson gave vital PPE to China, instead of keeping it for the NHS.
Only in late February, when the scientists warned that half a million could die, did he talk about responding to “any potential outbreak.” He still bragged about shaking hands in hospitals, he kept the borders wide open. Contract tracing started, and stopped.
Not until mid-March did he give way to the inevitable, and even then he made the country wait for 14 days before ordering Lockdown One.
Infections and deaths soared, with hospitals unable to treat elderly victims. Old people were shunted off wards into care homes, without Covid-testing, eventually causing a spike that took 30,000 lives.
When Johnson himself caught the virus, and almost died in St Thomas’s hospital, aides hoped that he would now take the crisis seriously. But his old instincts won over. His message was “go back to work if you can.” There was a summer free-for-all, with Treasury-subsidised meals. School and universities came back.
So did the virus, with rising infection and death rates. Unabashed, John made the same mistake for the second time. He prevaricated and faffed about with unworkable Tier restrictions, rejected advice from Sage to impose a two-week “circuit break” and sneered at Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for backing the idea.
Calvert and Arbuthnott reveal that he was almost convinced, but took the political path of least resistance to appease his hard-line Chancellor Sunak. “Mostly, he was winging it.” they argue. A pub curfew here, local restrictions there.
And he was on the wing for three more weeks before once again capitulating to the inevitable with a four week lockdown. Had he acted earlier, experts estimate that between 6,700 and 13,400 lives might have been saved.
He undid the benefit of that shutdown, by opening up homes for a family-sharing Christmas, triggering a fresh spike in the New Year largely due to the emergence of the highly-infectious Kent mutant of the virus. Then came his third delayed lockdown, under which we still labour.
“History is unlikely to be kind to Johnson and his stewardship,” say the authors. “Some [world] leaders quickly grasped the new reality and took tough decisions when they were necessary.
“In Britain there was a wishful thinking by the Prime Minister that everything would turn out to be okay, and it was not.
“Unfortunately, Johnson’s decisions – in particular the delays to the lockdowns – had a cataclysmic impact on his country, leaving it viewed internationally as a ‘plague island.”
Only now, with the hugely-successful roll-out of the NHS-led vaccination campaign, which is beyond the scope of this book, can we look forward to the future with cautious confidence.
Meanwhile, hear this warning from Richard Horton, editor of medical journal The Lancet. He says of the government: “They really are scared that the verdict of history is going to condemn them for contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of British citizens.
“They are desperately trying to rewrite the timeline of what happened. And we must not let them do that.”
Amen. This penetrating analysis of political folly in high places marks the beginning of that process.
- Failures of State, The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, HarperCollins, £20.