Dear Boris Johnson, when is the ‘Right Time’ to Learn Lessons from Your Covid Actions and Inaction

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

Boris Johnson, I was struck by something you said in Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons this week. In relation to a question from the leader of the opposition, you said something I found extremely strange. I’m accustomed to you saying peculiar things in a defensive manner, in an attempt to distract from questions and avoid responsibility for your actions and inaction, but this was the most bizarre response I’ve seen from you, in the context of all that has happened.

Keir Starmer had said the following [the session can be read on Hansard]: “Yesterday, we passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths in the United Kingdom. That is not just a statistic: behind every death is a grieving family — a mum, a dad, a sister, a brother, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. The question on everyone’s lips this morning is why? The Prime Minister must have thought about that question a lot, so will he tell us why he thinks that the United Kingdom has ended up with a death toll of 100,000 — the highest number in Europe?”

To which you replied: “I mourn every death in this pandemic and we share the grief of all those who have been bereaved. Let him and the House be in no doubt that I and the Government take full responsibility for all the actions that we have taken during this pandemic to fight this disease. Yes, there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare. I do not think that moment is now, when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant.”

Suggesting now is not the time to learn is an astonishing thing to say. Clinicians have been learning — and continue to learn. Epidemiologists have been learning — and continue to learn. Virologists have been learning — and continue to learn. Pharmacologists have been learning — and continue to learn. Shop workers have been learning — and continue to learn. We have all been learning lessons — so why not you?

Perhaps you mean this isn’t the time to put you under scrutiny. But that is EXACTLY what Prime Minister’s Questions is for. If you object to scrutiny, you should step down. Every week you mutter and squirm, like a child caught shoplifting, and then try to shift the blame and wriggle out of it. But this is a million times worse than shoplifting.

Not only have you repeatedly refused to look properly into the mistakes you have made but last summer you even admitted in Prime Minister’s Questions that you have repeatedly refused to do this. Below is you last July, trying to bluster your way out of scrutiny. It is almost as though you know you have done something terribly wrong that has killed a huge number of people. Given the significantly lower death rates in most other countries, could it be your sluggish response, your putting business above lives, your team’s mass exposure / pre-vaccine ‘herd immunity’ narratives, the botched test, track and trace system, the fortune you gave to unqualified cronies or your reluctance to close borders that you think could lead to accusations of being responsible for mass death?

Whichever figures we look at, the number of Covid-related deaths in the UK is already thousands of people over 100,000 and the toll is rising by well over 1,000 most days. There is no getting away from the fact that we have one of the highest death tolls in the world. Whether we are looking at straight comparisons or factoring in population size, we are up there with the highest death tolls on the planet. For an island state, this is beyond negligent — it is reprehensible. To put the current total in context, there were 67,100 British civilians killed in the six years of World War 2. I know you admire Churchill as you do a very bad impersonation in your speeches, but it might turn out that your ineptitude killed more Brits than Hitler’s blitz did over several years. Just let that sink in, Boris, and consider if you are cut out for leadership.

The vast majority of UK Covid deaths have been in England, but there can be no doubt that the disease being allowed to get out of control here has been damaging to individuals, families, businesses and communities right across the UK. In addition to deaths of those diagnosed with Covid-19 infection, there are many untimely deaths of people with other diseases who might have otherwise been successfully treated, not to mention suicides that might not have happened in different circumstances. These need to be taken into consideration in any examination of the impact of your slow and inept response to Covid.

Boris, your hollow words “We truly did everything we could” and “I’m deeply sorry for every life lost” were infuriating to hear because I can clearly remember the way in which you dragged your heels before introducing recommended public health measures to socially distance people and I remember crowded sporting events, such as an international rugby match and the Cheltenham Festival going ahead.

Herd immunity via mass exposure narratives were pushed, despite not knowing if and for how long exposure would protect people from being reinfected or being asymptomatic carriers, despite not knowing what long-term health problems those who were exposed and recovered would have and — very troublingly — an obliviousness to a key characteristic of viruses. They mutate — and the more virus there is in the population, the more likely it is to mutate and become more dangerous and difficult to deal with.

Boris, if you bother to read this, I know you will instinctively and narcissistically be muttering your denials — just as you do in the Commons all the time. So, let me leave you with something that you can’t ignore. It is your own words from less than a year ago — and in which you mock other countries’ concerns about the pandemic and suggest the UK can exploit other countries’ caution and become “like Superman’. If that attitude didn’t mirror your blasé approach (until you got the disease) I would wonder if you were on drugs, such is the arrogant, power-crazed, money-obsessed line you took.

I have tweeted the footage (below) numerous times and encourage others to do so. When you finally allow an inquiry into your inept response to Covid19, I’m sure it will be played a lot. It was a speech you made in Greenwich on February 3rd 2020. The full transcript can be found here but I urge readers to view it to appreciate the scorn in the current Prime Minister’s voice about those national leaders whose first instinct was to protect their citizens rather than find a way to exploit the situation for money and political advantage.

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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