It was exactly one year ago that Boris Johnson finally seemed to get serious. After a lifetime as the clown prince of British politics, he appeared at a Downing Street press conference to deliver his most sombre ever announcement: many Britons were going to die from this new coronavirus.
“I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” he told all us hacks gathered for the occasion. The grim fatalism, the deadly scientific inevitability of a virus out of control, was palpable for everyone in the room, and the millions watching on TV.
Yet looking back now, the most striking thing about that briefing was how Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were probably as much in the dark as the PM about exactly how to react. They talked about their strategy of “delaying” the incoming Covid wave, about how closing schools risked harming the NHS (given how much its staff relied on childcare), how mass gatherings were not the threat many assumed.
Crucially, the scientists warned that if politicians imposed tough restrictions too early there was a real risk that the public would “become very fatigued”. Referring to a graph of the projected wave, Johnson told us: “The most dangerous period is not now, but some weeks away.” He was referring to projected cases and deaths, but he had no sense that the most dangerous period was in fact right then and there. As he joked about “squashing the sombrero”, the virus had already begun its grim death march.
It was another 11 days before a full lockdown was imposed. People like Professor Neil Ferguson have since admitted he and other advisers got it wrong and the lockdown should have been in place a week earlier at least, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives. It’s even claimed that Dominic Cummings argued strongly for an earlier lockdown.
One person who certainly was vocal in the days before the “level with you” press conference was Rory Stewart. He cited his experience with Ebola and said ministers should act “much more aggressively” to close schools and ban even medium sized gatherings. Unlike many of us who went along with the scientific advisers, he was prepared to challenge their assumptions.
At the time, I even said that Stewart’s call to arms felt like “populist tripe”, a politician keen to draw attention to his mayoral campaign with what seemed a knee-jerk crackdown. It seemed such an un-Rorylike thing to do. I’ve since admitted to Stewart how wrong I was and how right he was, but he fully deserves an apology. Acting hard and fast was the right call.
In fact, Stewart’s lockdown call was not populism (especially given the economic and social risk of getting it wrong), it was more about challenging accepted wisdom. We saw a similar big judgement call when Tony Blair demanded a first-dose policy for the vaccines (with scientific advice on dosing mixed at the time) to double their rollout, a policy adopted soon after by Johnson.
In a recent speech to the Association of British Insurers’ (ABI) annual conference, Stewart pointed out that the reason populists like Trump and Johnson sometimes failed to grasp what was needed on Covid was because they governed like campaigners. Their ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Make American Great Again’ sloganeering “does not prepare them for complicated eight hour conversations about transmission rates and contagion”, he said.
As it happens, it now seems the PM has indeed learned some of those lessons, not least on being incredibly cautious about coming out of lockdown this time. Yet over the past year and even now, on issues ranging from free school meals to today’s final banning of gay conversion therapy, he has found it hard to shrug off his lastminute.com approach to decision making.
Whether it’s the urgent need to reform social care or put in place a detailed and coherent climate emergency strategy (the Cumbria coalmine being a case in point), there’s too often a sense that Johnson runs No.10 like he ran The Spectator, relishing a sense of “creative” chaos as long as he is at the heart of it.
This Sunday, TimesRadio’s G&T show has a fascinating interview with Charles Moore, Johnson’s former editor on the Telegraph. Moore praises the PM’s genius for wrongfooting people and sees his ego as an asset. But he adds this telling verdict: “I’m also highly critical, because I think many of the things thrown at him are true about an old sort of indecisiveness, a tendency to jump around and say something without thinking about it, and a sort of certain unreliability.”
As the country prepares for the anniversary of the first lockdown, it’s worth asking whether the PM himself has learned anything about those character traits. Will he level with himself, as much as us? After all, a “certain unreliability” is possibly the most gently damning verdict on someone on whom a nation depends in the life and death struggle against Covid.