Boris Johnson and COVID-19

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

BoJo Johnson was admitted to hospital on 5th April, after spending several days at his residence in self-isolation as a result of testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. When his condition worsened while in hospital he was put in intensive care, where he spent 3 nights before being discharged on 12th April. He is expected make a slow recovery.

BoJo was almost killed by his fundamental unseriousness.

On 3rd March 3, the always lighthearted and clownish BoJo joked: “I’m shaking hands continuously [sic]. I was at a hospital the other night [for one of his usual photo ops] where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know. I continue to shake hands”.

That same day, as Italy reached 79 deaths, BoJo declared that “our country remains extremely well prepared…. We already have a fantastic NHS, and fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of disease.”

This of course was absolute pie-in-the-sky, as subsequent events confirmed. BoJo, like his orange-hued friend across the Atlantic, has never been able to disentangle cheerleading from leadership, or rather, he assumes that the former constitutes the latter.

On 16th March BoJo joined a conference call with more than 60 manufacturing businesses to address the shortage of ventilators in the NHS.

Some participants came away from the conference call unimpressed with Johnson’s demeanour. “He couldn’t help but act the clown, even though he was on a call with serious CEOs from goodness knows how many companies,” one participant told POLITICO. POLITICO reported that BoJo “joked” that the initiative to build more ventilators could be known as “Operation Last Gasp”.

As of 12th April, the total recorded death toll in the UK has risen to 10,612, with 84,279 cases confirmed. Like the US, the UK only counts hospital deaths, and it is estimated that there are over 1000 deaths in care facilities and individual homes.

The government has come under fire for its slow initial response and a lack of preparedness, and there is criticism from doctors and nurses who said they were having to treat patients without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves.

Among those to have died after testing positive for COVID-19 are 19 health care workers including 11 doctors.

BoJo’s government has replicated some of the mistakes made by Trump’s administration.

A lack of preparation led to slow decision-making, when this need not have been the case.

The roots of the problem go back to the government of BoJo’s predecessor, the equally shallow but less buffoonish David Cameron.

An excellent article by Richard Stokoe, whose field is planning for disasters and civil contingencies at the University of South Wales, shows in detail that “the roots of the pandemic are deeper, systemic and have been years in the making”.

Stokoe provides a detailed account of the UK’s chain of responsibility when it comes to dealing with disasters (not just pandemics).

The Cabinet Office is responsible for modelling predictions of the next disaster to hit the UK, in order to make plans for prevention and mitigation.

This process involves the creation of the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. The first Register was produced in 2008, and updated editions were released in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and most recently in 2017.

In each of these editions one possibility remained constant– every National Risk Register has pandemic flu (along the lines of the 1918 Spanish Flu) as the most likely  catastrophic threat to the UK.

The assumption in the Registers was that each identifiable risk would generate workable plans, procedures, and systems to manage the disaster in question.

The aim was to have these in place for immediate implementation once the disaster struck.

Stokoe says that even though pandemic flu was consistently identified as the most likely potential disaster, the last strategy designed to tackle a catastrophic flu epidemic was produced 9 years ago, with a few addenda added in 2014.

This 70-page document was then left to lie on the shelf by the Tory government of David Cameron.

Another important aspect of disaster-planning is communication. The pivot-point for this in the UK in case of a flu pandemic, is the government’s UK Pandemic Influenza Communications Strategy, written in 2012, and designed to provide timely and accurate information to the public.

The document has never been updated, and given the searing pace of advances in communications technology, it might as well belong to the Stone Age.

Stokoe says that the document contains no mention of the important phrases used by officialdom in the COVID-19 pandemic, such as “social distancing”, the “cluster effect”, or “flattening the curve”.

Equally short-sighted and downright irresponsible, the guide to dealing with fatalities during the pandemic, containing supposed key named contacts, was last published in 2008.

Meanwhile, the government’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Team based in the Department of Health, and tasked with tackling a crisis of this nature, has not been seen since 2011.

In apportioning responsibility for these failures, it is hard to tell if they were the result of deliberate policy decisions, or an indirect consequence of austerity measures which reduced the civil service by one-third, or a consequence of the Brexit process, which diverted a shorthanded and overstretched civil service into managing the UK’s divorce from the EU.

In any event, such apportioning is irrelevant in the midst of the current pandemic, since the commission of inquiry which is bound to be set up once the plague is over will have this as part of its remit. Though cynics may note, rightly, that such commissions usually exist to provide the customary whitewash.

Far more important for now is the fact that the Tory government is working half-blind, bereft of the latest tools for gathering evidence, without up-to-date policies or science, and so is behind the coronavirus curve rather than flattening it.

The government, caught napping or with its pants down (perhaps the more appropriate metaphor since its head is the priapic BoJo Johnson), is having to engage in short-term improvisation as it responds to events without having even a modicum of control over them. Or it is having to look over its collective shoulder to learn how other better-prepared countries are responding to the crisis.

Symptomatic of this is the government’s daily press briefing, in which a government minister features alongside two government-employed senior health professionals. A reporter usually asks why the UK’s response to the crisis has been much inferior to Germany’s.

Those at the podium just shrug their shoulders and say nothing, even though the answer to the reporter’s question is readily available.

The simple answer (which those at the podium already know, but this is an answer that cannot speak its name at a government presser):

Germany has 28000 critical care beds vs the UK’s 6000.

Germany has twice as many doctors, and 4 times as many ventilators.

Germany’s health service has not undergone 10 years of cuts, and its nurses have not faced a 7-year wage freeze.

BoJo and his colleagues are just not up to the job of dealing with this crisis.

Since he entered parliament in 2014 (he was mayor of London before that), Johnson has voted for every cut to the NHS, and he voted against a pay increase for nurses in 2017, despite the fact that their wages had been frozen since 2010.

In 2018, during a meeting on a failing hospital in his constituency with a junior health minister and NHS bosses BoJo asked: “can’t we get some sort of American company to take it over?”.

During the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, BoJo used a German-made tour bus with “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. Only a fraction of this sum has been seen by the NHS.

In the December 2019 general election campaign, BoJo promised “40 new hospitals” for the NHS. It was subsequently revealed that funds would only be provided for modifications to 6 existing hospitals.

In a display of nauseating hypocrisy before he tested positive for COVID-19, BoJo led the weekly Thursday evening clapping ritual for NHS workers.

Now that he has been discharged from hospital, the UK media are full of guff about a likely BoJo change of heart on the NHS, given that its staff have saved his life.

Speaking in a video message just hours after leaving hospital, BoJo said he had left hospital “after a week in which the NHS has saved my life, no question”.

Does this statement reflect a possible change of heart on his part towards the NHS? It may, but the odds are stacked against this possibility.

Firstly, BoJo is an inveterate liar, and asking him to stick by any of his pledges (“40 new NHS hospitals”, etc.) will be akin to asking the proverbial leopard to change its spots.

Secondly, BoJo’s cabinet is the most rightwing in British history, and stacked with “free market” ideologues bent on destroying the NHS, and they will not give easy acquiescence to any such change of heart on his part.

Thirdly, the NHS is a vast and hugely complex entity (it is the UK’s largest employer). BoJo, apart from matters involving Eros, is known to have the attention span of a fruit fly, and halting the NHS’s decline after a decade of its being undermined by the Tories will require sustained attention to these complexities. Going by his past history, this task will be beyond BoJo.

Meanwhile, it is predicted that the UK’s COVID-19 death toll will be the largest in Europe.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.