Boris Johnson’s Recuperation at His Prime Ministerial Country Estate

BoJo Johnson, suffering from the COVID-19 virus, was discharged from hospital, where he had a spell in intensive care, in order to recuperate at Chequers, the official country residence of the prime minister. A second governmental country estate, Chevening, is earmarked for use by the prime minister and senior cabinet members.

While he recuperated, a succession of Tory ministers deputize for BoJo at the daily prime ministerial briefing.

BoJo, before his hospitalization, was a disaster at these briefings, clowning and bluffing his way through them.

Johnson has now returned to Downing Street.

The underlings who substituted for him in these briefings and media interviews are as incompetent as their boss— in the words of the columnist John Crace, their “prime brief appears to have been to know as little as possible about anything”. The actual magnitude of the pandemic is of course now much harder to conceal from the public, and ministerial shortcomings and failings are more starkly visible.

The UK death toll in hospitals from the pandemic is now 20,732. If coronavirus-related deaths in care homes, hospices, and private dwellings are included, an analysis from the rightwing Financial Times suggests the real UK death toll could be as high as 41,000.

Six weeks ago, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said that keeping the toll under 20,000 would be “a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get”.

This death-toll includes NHS staff, which the government has put at 69 (as of 22nd April), but the true figure is thought to be much higher. The Guardian has recorded more than 100 deaths (as of 24th April), but even this is an underestimate since not all deaths are in the public realm.

BoJo’s underlings had to take flak for his indolence and bad judgment before he fell ill.

On 2 April, the day he emerged from self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, the health minister Matt Hancock stood at the daily press conference podium, and declared:

“I’m now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I’m determined we’ll get there”.

Hancock was simply mirroring his boss’s pie-in-the sky approach to the pandemic.

On 25 March, under pressure on testing, and boasting the UK was doing better than other countries, BoJo said: “We are going up from 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000, hopefully very soon up to 250,000 per day”.

Alas with a week to go to the end-of-April deadline, the UK has achieved an underwhelming capacity for 51,000 tests, with only 23,000 being carried out.

Especially vulnerable are staff and residents in care homes, and not only has the government failed to keep track of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in these facilities, but testing there is severely limited.

A leaked email said government policy was still only to test an initial 5 people in an outbreak at each care home during an initial outbreak, despite the position of Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) being that all symptomatic residents should be tested.

Britain’s most celebrated living playwright David Hare, who has a career of over 50 years in the theatre and is recovering from COVID-19, has said: “To watch a weasel-worded parade of ministers shirking responsibility for their failures and confecting non-apologies to the dead and dying has seen British public life sink as low as I can remember in my entire lifetime”.

Hare attributed his survival to luck and the skill of his NHS general practitioner, while pouring scorn on the notion of a “fighting spirit” invoked by Trump to account for Johnson’s survival. BoJo hid in a fridge at a milk-delivery facility to avoid Piers Morgan’s TV crew during the general election in December, hardly something to be associated with the possession of any kind of “fighting spirit”.

In addition to the lack of testing, shortfalls of vitally needed PPE continue to bedevil health workers.

These shortfalls have been worsened by the government’s decision not to participate in the EU’s bulk-buying scheme for PPE and other health equipment (almost certainly because its hardline Brexiters would howl at an apparent weakening of resolve in the lead-up to the UK’s divorce from Brussels).

If such decisions ensued in a demonstrable shortage of lifesaving PPE, then the government would have failed the frontline workers it was under a legal obligation to protect. It is almost certain that some grieving families will take the matter to court.

The EU has asked the UK for an extension of the 31st December 2020 deadline for the UK’s actual departure from it, but the Tory government declined this request. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is recovering from the virus.

Again, the hand of hardline Brexiters in the Tory party is visible in this move, which can only be described as insane, since a No Deal Brexit will have a shattering impact on a UK economy now on the edge of a major recession as a result of the pandemic.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has suggested a 3-month lockdown could lead to a catastrophic 35% decline in GDP in the second quarter of the year. Adding the economic downward spiral caused by a No Deal Brexit to this will be utterly ruinous.

The lack of professionalism BoJo has displayed throughout his adult life (he got sacked from one of his jobs as a journalist for making-up a quote, to being the photo-op mayor of London and foreign secretary) is now painfully evident.

The UK government’s key crisis-management committee—COBRA—usually (but not always) chaired by the prime minister, met 5 times before COVID-19 arrived in the UK without BoJo putting in an appearance. The virus was going round the world, and, ostensibly, COBRA was preparing for its arrival in the UK.

After the virus came to the UK, BoJo only attended one COBRA meeting.

The government is also under fire for refusing to guarantee an independent inquiry into its handling of the pandemic, despite mounting criticism of its efforts.

There was a parliamentary inquiry when Britain was affected by “mad cow” disease in the 1980s (the death toll from the disease, as of April 2014, stood at 177), so the public pressure on the government to conduct a similar inquiry into the pandemic will be immense.

Boris Johnson’s chief adviser is the Svengali-like figure Dominic Cummings, whom some regard as the de facto PM, making key decisions as his supposed boss leads a highly relaxed life, exerting himself only for photo-ops and PR gestures.

BoJo set-up a secret scientific group– the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)— to advise him on the COVID-19 crisis. BoJo imposed Cummings on the group, despite his lack of a scientific background.

Politicians from all parties are calling for Cummings to be removed from SAGE, and for the committee’s deliberations to be made public. Since Cummings calls the shots in Downing Street, this is unlikely to happen.

One of the perks of being PM is the availability of the above-mentioned two country estates for personal use.

BoJo spent 2 weeks convalescing at Chequers after leaving hospital, but at the start of the crisis he disappeared to Chevening for 12 days of crucial inactivity (Simon Heffer, a leading UK newspaper columnist of unwavering centrist inclinations, tactfully attributed this disappearance to BoJo’s “baroque personal life”).

Not even Johnson’s orange-hued American counterpart, known for taking extensive breaks at his golf resorts, would dare disappear for a 12-day golfing vacation at a critical time like this.

BoJo makes it clear he is a wannabe Churchill, and describes the pandemic as a “war”, but the media’s overall assessment is that he more resembles Neville Chamberlain, the spineless prime minister who appeased Hitler before being swept aside to make way for Churchill.

That BoJo is willing to engage in such grotesque theatrics is only one manifestation of how badly the UK is being governed in this crisis.


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