There is a reason most of us don’t want to be the prime minister. Even at the best of times, the decisions that reach your desk are the hard ones – if it was easy, someone more junior would have handled it. What gets funded and what doesn’t will change people’s lives, some of them for the worse. All of that is before any decisions on foreign affairs, let alone war.
So to be prime minister during a pandemic unprecedented in the modern era is a burden few of us could live with – all of which must have made Boris Johnson’s evidence to the Covid inquiry incredibly tough watching for anyone who lost a loved one during the pandemic.
Johnson’s blithe attempts to explain away his frequently callous remarks would be wounding enough, given the lack of gravitas they suggest, but these were likely priced in. By now, we know who Boris Johnson is.
What really would sting, though, was that it is clear Boris Johnson remains unaware that his own innumeracy – and his willingness to learn basic maths, or engage properly when advisor after advisor tried to teach him – delayed lockdown.
As Johnson gave evidence, his interlocutors tried to point out that certain delays could not be explained by more evidence appearing, as there had not been time. They could only be explained, especially given the corroboration from others in Number 10, by the time taken to persuade a prime minister who didn’t want to learn that he needed to take decisions he didn’t want to make.
The problem of Covid transmission is that it is exponential. Not all of us will know what that means, but it is a concept we can intuitively grasp. We knew very early on in the Covid outbreak that each person infected would typically infect three more people. So without other action, those three would infect nine, who would infect 27, who would infect 81, and so on – things get out of hand very quickly.
An ancient parable features a too-clever-by-half wise man asking a king for a reward: take out a chess board, he asks, and place one penny on the first square. Put two on the second, four on the third, and so on. The foolish king agrees, feeling fine by the first row, which has a total of less than £3 on it, only to discover that the final square would need more money than has ever been produced in the world’s history.
Exponential growth starts very slowly and then goes very quickly indeed. With Covid, that was made worse because if we catch Covid ourselves, it takes us 3-5 days to realise we caught it – and it would then take the government at least 3-5 days more, when everything is going right, for that to turn up in the statistics.
With that combination of facts, by the time the government sees a problem, it is already a much worse problem than it appears – and will get worse fast.
That was the core rule of Covid, and it never changed, but Johnson had to be taught it time and time again, each time at the cost of…hundreds? Or thousands?… of lives. People paid a huge price for Johnson’s perennial ignorance, while Johnson gets off scot-free by never learning the enormous costs of his mistakes.
Boris Johnson doesn’t understand that the atmosphere of his Number 10 was toxic, let alone why it happened. He doesn’t understand why people find the comments he made time and again in WhatsApps and in the margins of government documents are so hurtful. He doesn’t understand why his assurances about the parties in Number 10 fall on deaf ears with the public. He doesn’t understand that his ignorance and dithering killed thousands.
Boris Johnson doesn’t understand, and he never will.