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The Covid Inquiry has already made up its mind on who to blame: Boris

Boris Johnson, 24 May 2020
Boris Johnson, 24 May 2020

There are echoes of The Third Man in this Covid Inquiry. The key figure, played by Orson Welles, is spoken about all the time but is never seen until late on (principally because he is thought to be dead). But on Wednesday, at last, exposed by a light cast into a darkened doorway, we will finally see Harry Lime, aka Boris Johnson, a knowing smirk upon his face. You can almost hear the zither music.

Like Graham Greene’s character, he has already been tried in absentia, his reputation trashed by former colleagues, medical evidence produced to demonstrate his cavalier indifference to human lives, with even his best friends no longer able to deny the truth. Boris must sometimes wish he had staged his own death as well.

Memories are short. Mr Johnson is now said even by his former colleagues to have been singularly ill-equipped to lead the country through a pandemic, and yet at the outset, and for many months afterwards (until the parties), he enjoyed high popularity ratings.

He is accused of failing to attend early meetings of the Cobra emergency committee at a time when Covid was just a dot on the horizon and no prime minister would have turned up unless the crisis was close.

In late February 2020, Boris was on holiday, but so was almost everyone else. That was one reason why the virus entered the country and seeded so easily. Why didn’t he dash back from the grace-and-favour country pile at Chevening in Kent to take charge instead of writing a book on Shakespeare? There’s another example of his insouciance.

Well, as the inquiry established when it questioned Dominic Cummings, the former Downing Street adviser and self-appointed Boris-basher-in-chief, the then-premier was not actually told how close the virus was to breaking out across the world.

Mr Cummings knew, or so he tells us, because he asked the right people the right questions. But apparently he did not vouchsafe this to his boss, didn’t ring him and suggest he returned to Downing Street, and didn’t put a note in his red box to bring him up to speed. In other words, he was not briefed.

This contradicts the generally accepted story – that Mr Johnson wilfully ducked out of Cobra meetings. It turns out that Mr Cummings did not seem to want him there. He thought it would be counter-productive because Mr Johnson feared talking the economy into a slump.

This is the next charge. Not only was Mr Johnson dilatory to begin with but compounded this by fretting over what might happen if the government imposed lockdown restrictions on the entire country, something never done before and only contemplated because China had done it.

He will tell the inquiry that he was being advised precisely along those lines by Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, who feared people would tire of the constraints and flout the rules.

There is still a widespread assumption – indeed, it underpins the Covid Inquiry – that lockdowns must have been A Good Thing because they limited social interaction and the only question to be resolved is whether they were too late and too relaxed.

As an exercise in back-covering, this Inquiry has few parallels. Something ostensibly established to ensure that we are prepared for the next pandemic has become an unedifying blame game.

Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, has insisted the country should have locked down three weeks before it did and thousands of lives would have been saved.

How can he possibly know that? Countries that did lock down earlier and harder fared little better in the long run, because the virus bounced back a second and third time to take the vulnerable people who might have been protected in the first wave. It is the nature of pandemics. You could be forgiven for believing that the UK was uniquely bad in its outcomes, and yet figures from the World Health Organisation suggest that we had a lower Covid-related death rate during the pandemic than Italy, Germany and Spain.

The real criticism of Boris is not that he was reluctant to plunge the country into a lockdown at the outset but that he was prepared to keep it there for far too long. Towards the end of the pandemic, he had fallen into the clutches of the doomsayers, precisely because he was being denounced for not having acted sooner at the outset.

Two years ago this week, the great debate was whether to have another lockdown over Christmas, even though most of the population had been vaccinated two or three times. A new variant called omicron had triggered a fresh panic and scientific advisers were piling pressure on Mr Johnson to shut everything down again.

Prof Neil Ferguson, whose models were used across the world to justify lockdowns, said the latest mutation had the potential to “very substantially overwhelm the NHS” and cause up to 10,000 hospitalisations a day. However, the Cabinet resisted, there was no lockdown and the “reasonable worst- case scenario” failed to materialise.

Boris instinctively opposed the illiberal nature of these restrictions, and has even been accused, heaven forfend, of taking seriously some of the scepticism expressed in the columns of this newspaper. We ploughed a lonely furrow challenging the received wisdom that lockdowns were self-evidently the correct approach.

Yet there was simply no plan for lockdowns nor any conception of their long-term effects. One example of the harm they caused can be seen in the latest international Pisa league tables, showing how our schools were badly affected by being closed for so long. Moreover, the price of saving lives back then is being paid now with excess deaths of people with late cancer diagnoses and other conditions that went untreated when the NHS effectively closed its doors to non-Covid patients.

The only sane question to ask when devising a pandemic policy is whether it will inflict more damage than the disease itself. Boris began by doing so but caved in eventually, and who in politics nowadays would have done otherwise? Corbyn? Starmer? Gove?

Any guilt is collective. Boris, the Cabinet, Parliament, the scientists, the broadcast media, the unions, the Church and the rest: all got the balance wrong, so scapegoating one person will get us nowhere. This Inquiry’s principal task should be to work out a plan for doing it properly next time, which could be sooner than we think.

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