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You know things are bad when Boris Johnson says the word ‘alas’. You know they’re truly awful when he doesn’t. And as the prime minister used his No.10 press briefing to mark the passing of 100,000 deaths from Covid, there was no disguising the magnitude of the moment or the scale of the loss.
The tone was suitably sombre as he (finally) pledged some form of national remembrance of those who had died, as well as recognition of all the acts of kindness, large and small, that have characterised the past year.
Yet even though Johnson began his address with the words “I’m sorry to have to tell you...”, it felt like he was a traffic policeman imparting bad news to a family, rather than the man at the wheel when the car crashed. Tellingly, the word “responsibility” wasn’t in the script.
He did remember to utter the R-word in answer a question from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, and even tried to expand on his apology. “I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost,” he said, “and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done.”
Some will have seen that as authentic and statesmanlike. Others may think condolences without contrition, real contrition, are empty words. Talk of taking responsibility can be cheap, but genuine remorse means changing your behaviour and, if you run a nation, changing your policy to prevent further harm.
In his opening speech, he said “we will make sure that we learn the lessons and reflect and prepare”. The problem is that sadly we’ve been here before. Last July, when he was talking stock of his first full year in office as 45,000 deaths were recorded, Johnson said “there will be plenty of opportunities to learn the lessons of what happened”.
By November, there were 50,000 deaths. And just 79 days later we now have another 50,000. The bereaved may be forgiven for thinking he’d learned nothing when he failed to heed scientists’ warnings to lockdown last September, and again just before Christmas. Many believe his decision to come out of the November lockdown was a huge error, compounded by a delay until January to reimpose it.
In July, Johnson said “what people really want to focus on now is what are we doing to prepare for the next phase” and in the same breath hailed test and trace. While testing capacity was indeed grown to cope with the ‘next phase’, the return of schools took the system by surprise and contact tracing and testing turnaround targets were repeatedly missed.
Back in the summer, the PM even promised an independent inquiry, but has since given no clue to what form it will take. And again on Wednesday, it was telling that he linked “lessons learned” with some vague point in the future, suggesting they would come once the country was vaccinated and “on a path to recovery”.
What most jarred with talk of taking responsibility came when Johnson said in the press conference “we did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life”. That had echoes of his claims during the first wave of deaths that he had taken the “right decisions at the right time”. It was almost as if we were back to square one and there were no lessons to learn at all.
Prof Neil Ferguson has at least admitted he and other advisers should have recommended earlier lockdown at the start, and that even a week’s difference would have saved possibly 20,000 lives. He has now told Radio 4 “we did just let the autumn wave get to far, far too high infection levels..a lot of the deaths we’ve seen in the last four or five months could have been avoided”.
The fact is that for Ferguson, chief scientist Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty, learning lessons comes as second nature. Responding to test outcomes and changing ideas as you go along is part of their DNA. They don’t need to wait for a public inquiry, they admit errors and adapt in real time. If only more politicians could do the same.
Whitty said “we have learned, are learning and will learn about this”, referring to mask wearing, asymptomatic transmission and new treatments. Asked about the Sage September advice on a circuit breaker he said “it’s extremely clear what the evidence on that is”, while adding that the new Kent variant changed the path of the pandemic significantly.
When NHS chief Simon Stevens was asked whether there was too much household mixing in December (a reference to the PM failure to lockdown before Christmas), he was admirably frank: “The facts as we see it in the health service are that on Christmas Day we had 18,000 coronavirus positive patients, and now we’ve got just under 33,000.”
It was notable to see the contrast between Stevens, who brutally distanced the NHS from ‘NHS Test and Trace’ in evidence to MPs earlier, and Johnson, who hailed Dido Harding’s service as a “colossal” operation doing “amazing work” in contacting Covid cases. Indeed, some may argue that the stunning success of the vaccination programme (6.9m jabs so far) underlines what happens when you put the NHS in charge of a delivery project, rather than outsourcing it.
Johnson’s strangest comment came at the end of the briefing when he said “our readiness for a future pandemic is really colossal by comparison” with last spring. How can he say that when he wasn’t even ready for the third wave of the current pandemic last month? “He’ll never change,” was how one senior Tory put it to me last year, decrying the PM’s inveterate habit of leaving problems to fester until the last minute and then panicking his response.
There was even a hint of the columnist-as-premier when Johnson said it would “exhaust the thesaurus of misery” to describe the 100,000 death toll that the UK has suffered. That reminded me of when he was once grilled as foreign secretary for his racist remarks about Barack Obama, saying there was such “a rich thesaurus now of things that I have said” that had been misunderstood that it would need “a global itinerary of apology to all concerned”.
The ‘sorry, not sorry’ apology on Tuesday was in that sense typical. But Johnson may ultimately be judged not by his thesaurus, but by his actions. And unlike our PM, that 100,000 figure does not lie. Last April, he claimed “there will be many people looking now at our apparent success”. This January, there are many people looking at our actual failure.