Winston’s not back

If you didn’t want the bus to crash, why did you get on?

“When I asked you to go into lockdown exactly a year ago, it seemed incredible,” Boris Johnson began, speaking, for once, the complete truth. 

We know that it seemed incredible to Johnson because exactly a year and a day ago, he said a lockdown wouldn’t be appropriate, and scoffed at the idea of asking the police to enforce one.

Tuesday was, we were told, a day for reflection. Matt Hancock had been out and about making the point. Although whenever he was asked to reflect on whether the government should have done anything differently, Hancock was clear that this wasn’t the kind of reflection he had in mind. It wouldn’t be appropriate, when we’re thinking about all those who have died, to think about whether quite so many of them needed to. 

Back to Johnson. He was addressing a lockdown anniversary press conference. Sadly, I missed the “shaking hands with everyone I meet” anniversary press conference three weeks ago, the “herd immunity” anniversary press conference two weeks ago, and the “on second thoughts, maybe skip the pub?” anniversary press conference last week. 

Still, one senses that remembering anniversaries has probably never been Johnson’s strong suit. His opening statement certainly sounded like it had been written with all the thoughtfulness of a man hastily grabbing a bunch of flowers from a petrol station forecourt as he checks his collar for lipstick. 

Or perhaps it had been written by one of the group of aides who I’m increasingly convinced are daring each other to see what they can get the prime minister to say. Why else include a line about cancelling children’s birthday parties?

Johnson spoke about the difficult nature of lockdown: “To stay at home, to avoid human contact, to shun so many of the patterns of behaviour that are most natural and obvious,” he said, leaving the uncomfortable question about which patterns of behaviour it was that he personally found natural and obvious. His mind perhaps focused on a man he knew who had been stuck in a central London flat for almost the whole time with a new baby and a barely-housetrained dog, he went on: “It’s been an epic of endurance and privation.”

The questions were largely asking what Johnson wished he had done differently last year. The prime minister is too much of a pro to walk into a trap like that. “There are probably many things,” he said, in a way that implied it was all very complicated. “The single biggest false assumption that we made was about the potential for asymptomatic transmission.”

If there’s one thing from last year the Downing Street would definitely do differently, it’s not produce a graph of deaths that showed Britain in comparison to other nations

This is clearly the go-to line at the moment: the idea that the government was blindsided by people’s ability to pass the virus on without showing symptoms themselves. It sounds science-y and gets you out of a corner with broadcasters, but it’s unlikely to withstand serious probing. The Brighton “super-spreader”, identified at the start of February, infected 11 people without himself displaying symptoms. Possibly Johnson missed this news, as at that stage of the year he was still dismissing Covid as something that lesser nations were getting over-excited about. 

Why had Britain done so much worse than other nations? “On the league table question,” the prime minister began, “the pandemic is alas not over yet – international comparisons are premature at this stage.” Like any good manager of a team at the top of the table, Johnson was taking nothing for granted. Germany were looking very strong, and there was plenty of time for a plucky underdog to storm up and take the top spot. 

In fact, if there’s one thing from last year the Downing Street would definitely do differently, it’s not produce a graph of deaths that showed Britain in comparison to other nations. I’m told it was done with little thought, at a time when it seemed relatively flattering, and it increasingly became a millstone as the weeks wore on. 

Still, is there anything else Johnson might do differently if he had his time again? Maybe pop along to one of those COBRA briefings on the pesky virus? Or not export a load of NHS protective equipment to China in February? “We took all the decisions with the interests of the British people foremost in our hearts and in an effort to protect the public,” he said. “Doubtless there will be a moment to review and to properly learn lessons for the future.” 

Doubtless, although it’s worth remembering the rule on the timing of government inquiries: today they would be a distraction from the job in hand, tomorrow it would be inappropriate so soon after such tragic events, and next week it will be time to put this behind us.  

Johnson has for years courted comparisons with Winston Churchill, even penning a biography which implied that if the great wartime leader didn’t actually tour Britain in a bus with lies on the side, it was only because of petrol rationing. Johnson too wanted a great crisis that would prove his mettle, and as with everything else in his life, what he wanted, he got. But when it came he was slow to act and, as at the press conference, desperate to be elsewhere. Business as usual: inaction this day. 

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