Tuesday was the national day of reflection to mark the anniversary of the start of the first lockdown. Ideally, of course, it would have happened a week or two earlier had not the prime minister been so unwilling to take the coronavirus seriously. Boris Johnson hadn’t bothered to attend five Cobra meetings; he had insisted on ignoring the scientific evidence by boasting about shaking hands; he had allowed the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead. And there would have been all hell to pay if he had tried to cancel Carrie Symonds baby shower at Chequers.
Then there was the abject failure of test and trace in its early months. The care home scandal. The over-optimistic relaxation of the rules over the summer. The refusal to adopt a circuit breaker in autumn. The complacent messaging around Christmas. The delay in bringing in a third national lockdown. So arguably what the country was also pausing to remember was the many thousands of people who had lost their lives through Johnson’s incompetence and negligence.
Not that any of this was mentioned in the Downing Street press conference later in the day. Rather Boris, flanked by the familiar faces of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, tried to talk up the spirit and endurance of the British people for having survived such a prolonged period of privation and highlighted the success of the UK’s vaccination programme. When the worst of the pandemic was over, then would be a time to think about a fitting and permanent memorial to all those who had lost their lives. He didn’t say what form that commemoration might take. A statue of Johnson dressed in a clown suit, perhaps. Or maybe something rather more substantial than a 1% pay rise for all NHS workers.
Many of the questions invited Boris – and England’s chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser – to reflect on things they might have done differently. All of them rather side-stepped the issue as none of them exactly covered themselves in glory in the early days of the pandemic. Johnson observed that it had been a completely new virus and that they had had to make up policy on the hoof. Which was true up to a point, though it failed to explain why other countries had achieved far better outcomes when faced with the same new health threat. The UK’s death rate has been the highest in Europe and its economic recession the deepest.
“Do you wish you’d locked down sooner?” asked a reporter from ITV. Boris shuffled uncomfortably and tugged at his hair. These are very hard decisions, he said. Ones for which there are no good outcomes. Though some of those who died might beg to differ on that. There again, Johnson probably couldn’t do his job without a high level of denial about the mistakes he has made. If he were to seriously think of the consequences of some of his decisions then he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
And deep down he knows this. When asked for how long he would be dealing with the effects of the coronavirus, he replied, ‘For the rest of my life’. Though whether this was the glimmer of conscience – not usually found in career narcissists – or a man beginning to feel self-pity for the position in which he now finds himself was unclear. To give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s call it a bit of both. Though a prime minister feeling sorry for himself on a day to remember 125,000 dead is not the best of looks.
As Boris floundered rather, both Whitty and Vallance stepped in to fill in the pauses. Over the past year, the CMO and the CSA have become notably more self-confident under the spotlight. They have forgiven themselves for the herd immunity mis-step early in the pandemic and have grown in stature. They are the two adults next to Boris’s clumsy teenager. Now they are no longer frightened of the truth and are prepared to call things as they are. So there was no chance of Covid being eradicated: the best we could hope for was to live alongside it with repeated booster jabs. And the people who were dying were the same people who always died: those who lived in the most deprived communities.
Johnson sidestepped a question about owners of second homes being allowed to go abroad – the figure of his Dad, Stanley, loomed heavily over that one – and was happy to end the presser by talking about vaccines. The one thing he has unquestionably got right. But that’s the equation he just can’t solve. Does the vaccine exonerate him from all his other disastrous decisions? Will he somehow get away with it and emerge as a heroic figure – a great leader – or will he be judged by his other disastrous decisions? Come the end, will everyone be so tired of the coronavirus they are prepared to forgive and forget? Or will the dead be given a voice? A year on and Boris is none the wiser.