Boris Johnson needs to admit his coronavirus mistakes

17 May 2020

7:00 PM

17 May 2020

7:00 PM

Be careful what you wish for. Over the past few years, a fair number of thoughtful Tories have included a strange item in their letters to Santa Claus. They wanted an effective Leader of the Opposition, who could keep ministers under pressure and force them to raise their game, which would lead to better government. Well, after nearly a decade-long pursuit of unelectability, Labour has granted the Tories their wish. The Tories are not enjoying it.

One suspects that Keir Starmer was always a pretty forensic character, even before he sharpened his cross-examining technique at the Bar. Moreover, a virtual House of Commons plays to his skills, but not the PM’s. In a full House, Boris would stride to the wicket, swinging his bat to excite the crowd rather like Ian Botham in his pomp. His wit would then feed off the roars. In that Commons as cockpit, Sir Keir would be lacking in presence and might well be disconcerted by mockery. Normally, Boris would look over his shoulder to incite the cheering – and the jeering. Now, when there is no one behind him, the backward glances look like a nervous tic.

The PM could have the beginnings of a reason for nervousness. These days, the Tory troops might not be so cheerful on parade. There are mutterings in the ranks. Boris, too, needs to raise his game. He has an excuse, though he would never use it. He tried to amuse everyone by telling us how much oxygen he had consumed in hospital. But this has a consequence. I am told by a doctor friend that if a patient is given a lot of oxygen, the lungs grow lazy. It takes them time to raise their game back to a pre-illness level, and other organs come under pressure. My medical friend says that a full recovery could take eight weeks. In the meantime, Boris should be aiming for a convalescent’s workload: say, a maximum of five hours a day. That is not possible for a PM during a crisis.

In debating terms, he has three problems: the failure to lock down earlier, the much higher than average European fatality figures, and care homes. In each case, this is compounded by statements which now appear misleading. There is one response to all that. It is unconventional. But Boris has never been conventional. So why not do something that few politicians ever attempt: use candour, and admit that mistakes were made?

Anything Jeremy Hunt contributes to the debate always raises its game. (Why on earth is he not in the Cabinet?) Earlier this week, he wrote that not nearly enough attention had been paid to warnings from China. The authorities had made the same mistake as the commanders in Singapore. They expected the Japanese to attack by sea. They came by land. We were preparing for a heavy assault from flu. We were not ready for a coronavirus.

Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea were used to threats from non-flu viruses. They also paid more attention to the pullulating chaos in major Chinese cities. If we had heeded the warnings from the East, we would have locked down earlier. One trusts that British authorities are not so out of date as to undervalue medical and scientific advice from these sophisticated countries. But there may have been complacency. To be fair to our experts, there had been a number of false alarms. Sars, Ebola, Bird Flu: all of them were supposed to be terrifying threats. None of them materialised in these islands. That may be a further explanation for complacency.

With care homes, it is not a matter of complacency: more a long-standing reluctance to face up to a chronic problem. MPs usually have considerable experience of care homes. When elections come round, they have to canvass them. As anyone who has been out with a candidate on such a quest knows, it is a depressing task. You might hope to find a circle of cheerful veterans declaring that although they do not have long to go, they are determined to have one final crack at Proust. Instead, the reality is rather different. You shudder as you escape from the undertaker’s waiting-room.

The problem of caring for the elderly has increased, is increasing and will increase. No one knows what to do. Few people want to think about it. Theresa May tried in her 2017 manifesto, which merely inflicted further damage on her vote. Given this sustained intellectual neglect, it is not surprising that those in charge failed to understand the difficulties which Covid-19 would create for care homes.

In all of those areas, Boris could startle us all by saying: ‘Yes, mistakes were made. After this is all over, there should be an inquiry, so that we can learn the lessons and file them away for next time. But I can assure you that we have already learned some lessons which we are now putting into practice.’

There is also a way in which Boris could counter-attack. The question of death-rates is much more confused than it might seem at first glance. International comparisons of medical data are tricky. It is often hard to be sure whether you are comparing like with like. But there is one measurement which is reliable, at least in Europe: the increased death rate from all causes. Over time, this should give a rough clue to the effects of Covid-19. Another medically-literate friend thinks that if a league table of more countries were drawn up on that basis, the UK might be around the middle: no disgrace.

All this would require some eating of words. So what? I suspect that much of the public already believe that the government made mistakes, but are also prepared to accept that this was inevitable. Once Covid struck, there were no easy answers. If Boris and other ministers insist that nothing went wrong, and therefore have no answer when confronted by earlier and now erroneous forecasts, they will sound silly, the public will become exasperated and Tory MPs will grumble, which will feed into the media, leading to more silliness, more exasperation and more grumbling. To head this off, the Johnson No. 10 needs more grip, more strategy and much more ability to anticipate trouble.

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