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Should we start to feel sorry for Boris Johnson?

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference in 10 Downing Street - Credit: Getty Images

LIZ GERARD is second to no one in her criticisms of Boris Johnson. Yet for all his manifest failings, she cannot help feel some sympathy for his current predicament. But when anger starts turning to pity, how long can a prime minister last?

At what point does anger turn to pity? Do we rediscover our essential humanity when a prime minister at the helm of an incompetent and malign government is manifestly floundering out of his depth; when a man desperate to be loved by everyone suddenly finds himself to be Nobby No-mates, attacked by friend and foe alike and apparently betrayed by at least one of his four closest colleagues?

There are plenty who would reply in raw Anglo-Saxon, pointing to the graveyards and the ghost towns, to the children denied £3 for a hot meal by MPs who eat subsidised steak and chips at £11 a go.

They might remind us, too, of wealthy friends of men in high places with their £100 shell companies hoovering up procurement contracts without full tendering processes. And the women with no discernible specialist expertise (“We’ve all had enough of experts”) put in charge of ‘NHS track and trace’ and the ‘vaccine taskforce’; women who happen to be married to Tory MPs – one of them the UK’s ‘anti-corruption champion’, the other an Eton contemporary of Boris Johnson in whose government he now serves.

There is so much to be angry about as we enter at least a month of lockdown, six weeks after scientists called for a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ and a fortnight after Keir Starmer was mocked at a second successive PMQs for making the same request. Had the prime minister heeded either, lives would have been saved and we should be facing fewer rather than more restrictions today.

The lockdown would not only have been shorter, but could have incorporated half-term and so reduced the risk of the virus being spread through secondary schools. What’s more, it would have come before the clocks went back and so avoided people being cooped up through the often bleak days and long dark nights of November.

But no. Johnson told both his scientific advisers (remember the days when he “followed the science”?) and Sir Keir not once, but twice, that he knew better; that his regional tier system was the way to go. Then, for good measure, he had to pick fights over piffling sums of money with not one, but two Manchester heroes in Andy Burnham and Marcus Rashford – only to add insult to injury by claiming that holiday meal vouchers were unnecessary because he was helping the poor with a special £63m injection. Money that had long since been distributed and spent.

When Sage called for the circuit breaker, 28 people had died with Covid the previous day and there were 328 in hospital with the virus. By the time Johnson announced his tier system, the number of cases had quadrupled, a rise fuelled in part by Rishi Sunak’s ripe-for-abuse £500m subsidy for those who could afford to eat out. By the time Johnson announced Lockdown2, we had passed the million-cases milestone, there were 11,000 people in hospital, and deaths had increased tenfold to more than 300 a day.

Five thousand people died with Covid between the initial Sage warning and the lockdown decision. But they are far from the full picture, the real shame comes with the people who will die in the next two or three weeks – people who caught the virus last month who would not have done had Johnson acted swiftly and decisively.

So why feel sorry for him?

Because however awful the man and his administration – and, my goodness, they are unremittingly awful – there is no straightforward solution to this crisis, which is just about the only one facing the country that is not of his making.

Whatever he does, he cannot get it right. While the pro-lockdown lobby is tearing its hair out over his inaction; the anti-lockdown lobby is in full cry, with a range of objections running from the very real threats to jobs, the economy and mental health to angst about government by diktat with scant reference to parliament (though there seemed to be fewer qualms about that when it came to Brexit laws) and absurd protests about having to cover your face for a few minutes in the supermarket.

There was a set of collectible toys in the 1970s called Weebles, advertised with the slogan “Weebles wobble but they won’t fall down”. Fifty years on, Boris Johnson is the personification of these little egg-shaped characters (some even had blond mop hairstyles), being bipped from all directions, but bouncing back to the upright position, full of boundless optimism, every time.

But for how long? Until the child playing with him gets fed up and smashes him to pieces or chucks him into the back of the back of the cupboard. That day cannot be far away.

In the meantime, Johnson is trapped in a world where he has no choice but to keep on promising that everything will turn out all right – “Together we will beat the virus”; “Our great country will come through”; “Brexit will unleash our potential” – when it becomes clearer by the day that if any or all of these eventually come to pass, he will not be there to reap the glory.

The Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar reworked the old tree-planting proverb last weekend, saying the best time to have locked down was a month ago, the second best time is now. Yet the resistance is growing – and those most vociferously opposing the new restrictions are not Johnson’s traditional foes, but his bestest best friends: Tory MPs, supporters and newspapers.

But what would they do in his place? Most just rail against the new measures, likening lockdowns to yo-yo diets that don’t work in the long-term and listing the harm they will do. Few offer solutions and those who do seem to live in another world.

The former UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn blogged in the Spectator that GPs (who obviously don’t have much work on) should assess every patient’s risk of dying of Covid, and then ask them to decide whether they wanted to be in the ‘shielding’ or ‘distancing’ group. The most vulnerable would stay indoors, protected and helped by a volunteer army to be known as the National Shielding Service.

These under-40s would be “paid generously” (by whom?) in return for being tested daily and promising to live a ‘shielding’ lifestyle outside of work. O’Flynn acknowledges that it’s too late to stop lockdown now, but he seems to think his scheme could be up and running by the time it is due to end on December 2. Good luck with that.

Slightly more realistically, two Oxford epidemiologists wrote in the Mail on Sunday that they had submitted a “blueprint” to Downing Street a month ago.

They called for better testing, more accurate statistics, better communications with the public and a 20% increase in care home staff. Everyone has been calling for better testing, better audits and better communications since March.

Are they magically going to appear now because a couple of doctors think they’d be helpful? Do they not think the government had already thought it needed to do something about these things? Of course it has. It’s just that it’s too incompetent to crack it.

As to a 20% increase in care home staff, where do they think these carers will come from? Had they not noticed that the very people on whom homes rely so heavily are being made unwelcome here? Were they unaware that these homes are struggling financially, as are their clients, so that a 20% increase in the wage bill isn’t feasible? Do they have any notion of how long recruitment processes take? Employers don’t think ‘We need someone’ on Friday and have them start on Monday. Advertising, interviews, DBS checks, medicals, reference checks can run to months.

And we don’t have months. The whole point of this latest U-turn is that hospitals are filling up fast, even before we reach the winter flu season. Those arguing that cancers are going undetected, that people are in pain because of delayed operations, are right to worry. But if the wards are full of very infectious people, there will be even less chance of those other patients getting the care they need.

They talk about shielding the vulnerable, about the young paying too heavy a price to protect the old. It’s a valid point when the average age of those who have died so far is 82.

But what are they really saying? That Covid patients over a certain age – 80, 70, 60, 50? – should be denied medical treatment while people in the same age groups with other conditions can still be admitted to hospital?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that kind of dangerous approach is unprecedented. Cancer and heart patients – including those whose conditions are a result of their questionable life choices – are treated free on the NHS while dementia sufferers, including those with vascular dementia brought on by stroke, are left to fend for themselves (or rather to be cared for by family or care homes) unless they happen to fall and break a bone, so requiring hospitalisation. They say a society can be judged by the way it treats its elderly. We don’t seem to care much for ours. Shut them away so the young can play and if they get ill, let them die.

Lockdown sceptics do, however, have a point when it comes to giving the public real information on how the virus lines up against other conditions – how many cases and where, how many working days lost, how many hospital beds they take up, how long the average stay and, of course, how many die.

Statistics on all deaths from all causes are published regularly by the ONS, but these are not used by politicians to put Covid in any real context, and journalists rarely bother to delve into the figures to do that for themselves. It’s simpler to regurgitate the ‘excess deaths’ number, covering all deaths above the expected norm, that is handed to them on a plate.

In the absence of reliable figures, independently reported, analysed and explained, it is easy for the libertarians to claim that the whole pandemic is being exaggerated, that the predictions are too gloomy, rather as Leave campaigners mocked warnings about the consequences of Brexit as “Project Fear”.

We’ve had four years to make sure there is no economic meltdown after we split from the EU. We shall know soon enough who was right. It doesn’t look promising. A year ago, we’d never even heard of the coronavirus and we’ve had only a few months to prepare for what experts told us would likely be the more deadly second wave (just look at what happened with Spanish flu in 1918).

Johnson and his muppets have made enough bad choices, but they’ve done a screeching handbrake turn at the last minute for fear of seeing patients on trolleys sheltering from the rain and sleet under makeshift plastic awnings. At least in this they had the sense not to gamble on events proving the doomsayers wrong.

Maybe they’ll do the same on Brexit. Maybe the US election and the pandemic will concentrate minds and an accord will be reached with the EU. Maybe the test, trace and isolate system will finally start working. Maybe a vaccine will be found. Maybe 2021 will see many tides turning.

But it won’t save Johnson. Covid was not his fault, but it will be his downfall. He may have overcome it physically, but he’s made too many mistakes, told too many lies, lost too many friends to survive it politically. Once Brexit has been ‘delivered’, with or without a trade deal, he will be off to spend more time with his lucrative keyboard. So too, with luck, will Dominic Cummings. Then we can only hope that the next leader foisted on us by the Conservatives will purge this cabinet of incompetents of its Brexity yes-men and women and appoint at least some people up to the job.

Boris Johnson wanted to be world king, the task of leading a tiny island nation proved beyond him. He was dealt a rotten hand that few could have played well. So, on some human level, I do pity him. But I’ll be glad when he’s gone.

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