Covid Inquiry lifts lid on what many suspected - indecisive and callous Boris Johnson was not fit to be PM
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At one point during today’s astonishing, shocking and often expletive-laden evidence at the UK's Covid Inquiry, Andrew O’Connor KC asked Boris Johnson’s former communications chief Lee Cain if his old boss was up to the job of leading the country?
“It was the wrong crisis for this Prime Minister’s skillset,” Cain replied cutely, before the chair Lady Hallett interrupted: “Could we use straightforward English please.”
What Cain meant was that Johnson was completely incompetent and indecisive in a time of crisis. And the last few days grilling of former government advisers has laid bare what the country has known all along, that Johnson was a disastrous Prime Minister, unfit for the job.
In fact, it’s shown many of us that he was even worse than we suspected, from the dereliction of duty at the start of the pandemic as coronavirus was spreading across the globe, to his apparent view that Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.
And beyond this, the general chaos enveloping Downing Street with aides describing indecisive Johnson as an out of control trolley careering down an aisle. So, forgive me as I'm sure no one wants to, but let’s go back to the start of the pandemic, in late February 2020.
Covid was beginning to spread across the UK, with confirmed cases in Brighton, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland. In Italy the situation was even worse, a possible sign of what was to come, with deaths beginning to mount, yet despite these warning signs it now appears Johnson was not interested in Covid.
There was a 10-day period in February - which tied in with half term - when Johnson was on holiday and he was not contacted at all about Covid. On 3 March 2020, Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings sent a WhatsApp message to Cain saying the Prime Minister didn’t think Covid was a “big deal”.
He said: “He (Mr Johnson) doesn’t think it’s a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking economy into a slump.”
While Cain told the Inquiry there wasn’t “any clarity of purpose, any really serious outline, plan to deal with Covid at that particular point”. This came to the fore with the government’s bizarre message advising people not to go to pubs, while telling pubs they could remain open.
The Inquiry also revealed a 10-day delay from when the decision to bring in a lockdown was made to Boris Johnson’s actual announcement on 23 March 2023. And the image behind the scenes is a hapless Prime Minister too afraid to make a big decision.
Far from being like his idol Churchill, Johnson would just agree with the last person who spoke in the room. "He can be quite a challenging character to work with,” Cain said, “just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room. I think that’s pretty well documented in terms of his style of operating – it is rather exhausting from time to time.”
On WhatsApp the advisers were far more blunt about the PM. Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said about Johnson: “I am at the end of my tether. He changes strategic direction every day … he cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach … IT HAS TO STOP!”
And Johnson was still making the same mistakes in September. “You can forgive some of the errors in the first lockdown because things were moving at incredible speed,” Cain said. “By the time we moved into this later period, the rump of No10 thought we've learned all these lessons from the first period of lockdown - why are we now trying to ignore them again and repeat the same mistakes? Too slow to act, a denial of the measures that are going to be necessary to control the virus, moving too late and allow the R to get out of control.”
While on WhatsApp Case said: “This gov’t (sic) doesn’t have the credibility needed to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not to. We look like a terrible, tragic joke. If we were going hard, that decision was needed weeks ago. I cannot cope with this.”
All the while tens of thousands of people were dying, something Johnson did not appear that bothered about. The government’s chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance wrote in his notebook in August 2020 that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”. He described this as a “quite bonkers set of exchanges”.
In October 2020, Johnson wrote to Cain: “Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4%) and of those virtually all survive. And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff.”
Another of Vallance’s notes in December 2020 found that Johnson thought the Conservative Party “thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I [Johnson] am not entirely sure I disagree with them.”
While another aide Imran Shafi said he thinks that notes show Johnson said we are "killing the patient to tackle the tumour" about Covid, and also "why are we destroying everything for people who will die anyway soon?" It makes Cummings’ previous claim, that Johnson said “let the bodies pile high in their thousands”, seem all the more likely.
Given everything we already know about Johnson, the parties during the pandemic, promoting Chris Pincher despite warnings about his behaviour and the Owen Paterson scandal, it’s hard to be surprised about the chaos, dysfunction and callousness at the heart of his premiership - yet I still am.
The good thing is the Covid Inquiry is able to put on record what many people had suspected and warned about - that Johnson was a disastrous Prime Minister. If Lee Cain is unwilling to say it, I will - he was very clearly unfit for the job.