A year after Johnsonâs swaggering Greenwich speech, 100,000 dead
I t was announced last week, to nobodyâs excitement, that Sir Kenneth Branagh will take the role of Boris Johnson in a Sky TV drama about the first weeks of the pandemic. If Branaghâs casting indicates that this is to be conceived as a Shakespearean tragedy, with Johnson in the lead, then it would seem doomed from the start. The classic tragic hero has just a single fatal character flaw that proves his undoing. With Johnson, where do you start?
As an opening scene in that drama, it will, anyhow, be hard to beat the speech that the prime minister gave almost exactly a year ago â perhaps the last moment in which he fondly imagined that all the world lay before him. The speech, delivered in the grand surroundings of Christopher Wrenâs Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich on 3 February 2020, set out his vision for a buccaneering global Britain, high on union flags and free trade. Johnson had not long returned from his post-election beach frolics in Mustique with Carrie Symonds. Brexit had finally been âdoneâ in Parliament Square three nights earlier. No opposition troubled his horizon. Labour was leaderless; Farage pointless. Even Michael Gove, his limp-daggered Brutus, had been co-opted to the cause.How did Britain get its coronavirus response so wrong? Read more
As he barrelled on to the stage at Greenwich therefore, ruffling his hair, shuffling his notes, his first act was to ask his carefully selected business audience â strictly no Remainer âgloomsters and doomstersâ allowed â to raise their eyes to the vaulted ceiling and survey the mural above their heads. Sir James Thornhillâs baroque masterpiece, The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny, depicted William III and Mary II enthroned after their own âGlorious Revolutionâ and surrounded, in Johnsonâs eyes, by âwell-fed nymphs and cupids and what have youâ. This, said Johnson, sledgehammering the symbolism, marked âthe settlement of a long and divisive political question about who gets to sit on the throneâ. It was a moment of âsupreme national self-confidenceâ, he suggested, with the UK âon the slipwayâ of global economic dominance. âToday, if we get it right, this can be another such moment.â
Hubris works in mysterious ways. That speech will be remembered not, as Johnson hoped, for its rhetoric about unleashed British swagger, but for the fact that in the midst of it, in a throwaway phrase, there lurked the seed of all of his â and our â locked-down nightmares of the past year.
In the days leading up to the Greenwich speech, Johnson had been pointedly silent on the virus that had by then escaped from Wuhan. A full month after it had been identified by the Chinese authorities, the Greenwich speech marked the first time the name of the disease officially passed his lips.
Inevitably, it was employed not as a cautionary note, but as an irritating niggle to his vision of swash and buckle: âGlobal growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow,â Johnson said. âWhen [trade] barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government, somewhere, that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.â
There was to be no doubt which government would stand stubbornly oblivious to the risks of the virus, ignore the panic, and keep the market economy open at all costs. Britain, the prime minister cried, was âready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles, leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged championâ of economic freedom in any stand-off with public health restriction.Boris Johnson gives his key speech at the Old Naval College in Greenwich, London, on 3 February 2020. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP
We have heard from the interchangeable cast of fawning ministers in the past week that ânobody could have worked harderâ than Johnson in tackling the pandemic. But when historians â those pesky professional Captain Hindsights â come to lay out the evidence, they will find plenty that disagrees with that fantasy, starting with the Greenwich speech.
The second excuse that Johnsonâs courtiers have been told to peddle is that no one could have predicted any of what was to come. That is also not exactly true. The week before Johnsonâs free-trade speech a report in The Lancet had assessed the lethal potential of the virus, and suggested it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people.
The concern was not confined to the experts. It is notable that on the Saturday before Johnsonâs speech, the Daily Mail had devoted its front page not to the triumphalism of the previous nightâs Brexit celebrations, for which it had so stridently campaigned, but to the threat to the UK posed by Covid-19: âHow many more UK victims of virus?â. Johnsonâs own former employer, the Daily Telegraph, counselled on 1 February that Britain must be prepared for the worst. âPessimists might point out that the mortality for the new virus is considerably higher than for swine flu. When swine flu broke out in 2009, the NHS also had spare capacity, having enjoyed a decade of real-terms investment increases. Today, there is already a shortage of bedsâ¦â
On the Thursday before Johnsonâs set-piece in Greenwich, the World Health Organization had informed every nation that the virus had its highest risk rating â equivalent to that of Ebola and Sars â with 7,818 cases confirmed globally, in 19 countries. In response, on 31 January, even Donald Trump had restricted incoming flights from China. Johnson not only viewed the virus as a line in a Superman gag, but as an opportunity to prove that he was prepared for Britain to go it alone against the po-faced experts, keep the airports open with minimal screening and quarantine, not play by their rules.
To prove the point, by the time of the Greenwich speech, he had already skipped the two Cobra meetings devoted to planning for any potential pandemic, leaving them to be chaired by the already hapless Matt Hancock. Over the course of the following weeks, he neglected to attend three more. Ten days after the Greenwich speech, he retreated to his grace-and-favour country retreat at Chevening for a fortnight, partly to finalise the terms of his divorce from Marina Wheeler, not long recovered from cancer, and to let his grown-up children in on the fact that he and Symonds were expecting a baby and had been secretly engaged. His aides were reportedly told to âkeep briefing papers shortâ if they expected them to be read. It was almost March by the time Johnson re-emerged to stage-manage news of the pregnancy for the press.We have all been cast as walk-ons in a drama which, from the very beginning, was partly, but fundamentally, of Johnsonâs making
It was in this context that he sat on breakfast-time sofas and vaguely floated the notion of herd immunity, before dismissing the tempting idea of âtaking the virus on the chinâ. On 3 March, the clear advice from Sage was that the government should âwarn against greetings such as shaking hands and huggingâ. Johnson, infamously, went out that day and told reporters: âI was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.â Johnson spent late March in isolation, along with most of his cabinet, and early April in intensive care.
It has been claimed that those days in hospital changed Johnson from the John Bull-ish character he had presented at Greenwich into a more chastened figure; there is not much in his subsequent rhetoric â of world-beating this and moonshot that, and briefings that he was âbattling the experts to save Christmasâ â to support that idea. As he has toured the country for photo opportunities in hard hats and lab coats, it is hard to shake the belief that he still sees leadership as he saw it when he stared up at Thornhillâs ceiling â as a kind of costume drama in which he gets to star, a prep-school performance of 1066 and all that. He might have been advised to pay closer attention to the âwell-fed nymphsâ that he waved a hand at in Greenwich. They were not, as he seemed to envision them, decorative elements of classical totty, but depictions of the four virtues that enabled good governance: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.
As the death toll last week passed the 100,000 predicted a year ago, we were invited by the governmentâs favoured newspapers to see Johnson as a âdeeply sorryâ head-bowed figure, in screen grabs of him reading from his notes.
But whatever those headlines or Kenneth Branaghâs forthcoming depiction imagine, we should always keep in mind that this is not the prime ministerâs tragedy, itâs the tragedy of the families of the 105,000 who have died, of the key workers who have risked their lives day after day, the millions who have seen jobs and plans and businesses capsized. We have all been cast as walk-ons in a drama which, from the very beginning, was partly, but fundamentally, of Johnsonâs making â and one which will only properly end when he and his hammy troupe of chancers finally exit, stage right, no doubt still loudly pronouncing that nobody could have done more to keep us safe.
Seven lessons learned
Randomised trials are lifesavers Dexamethasone is a cheap steroid drug that has saved the lives of 650,000 severely ill Covid patients. Its effectiveness was revealed through the UK Recovery study, which compared treatments with usual NHS care alone in randomised trials. âClinicians come up with all sorts of hypotheses about drugs,â says Martin Landray, joint founder of Recovery. âBut youâve got to test these hypotheses. For that you need large, randomised trials.â
New diseases are a constant threat Covid-19 has again demonstrated that wild-animal trading, where species are mixed together in appalling, stressful circumstances, promotes disease transmission between species â and on to humans. âUnless we control long-distance trading in live animals, new diseases will appear again and again. That is a key lesson from this pandemic,â says James Wood, professor of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University.
Genomic surveys are crucial Britain has played a key role in tracking the progress of Covid-19 across the globe, thanks to its prowess in gene-sequencing. âUK laboratories have carried out 48% of all the worldâs genome sequencing of Covid-19,â says Professor Sir Mark Caulfield, of Genomics England. âThat has been invaluable in pinpointing new strains and underlines the need for a global genomics network to track and beat this disease. That would be a lifeline.â
People will accept inconvenience âStay at home and protect the NHSâ was a strong government message that the public accepted. Shops closed, car travel dropped by two thirds, while people provided food for the hungry and clapped for carers. âThat trust was undermined by Dominic Cummingsâs trip to Durham,â says psychologist Professor Dame Til Wykes, of Kingâs College London. âYet most people still followed the rules because they knew they were for a good cause.â
A fast response is critical A year ago the WHO warned the new disease represented a public health emergency. Australia, above, was one of the few countries to react quickly. âCrucially, those with past experience of coronaviruses like Sars did react and now look to be in a stronger position,â says Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. âDiscovering a new virusâs characteristics and having a clear strategy will be crucial in avoiding another pandemic.â
The NHS must be properly funded Years of cuts to public health services left Britain ill-prepared for Covid-19 and were critical in allowing death rates to soar. âAs the UK emerges from the pandemic it would be a tragic mistake to attempt to re-establish a status quo that was marked in England by a stagnation of health improvement that was the second-worst in Europe,â states a review led by Sir Michael Marmot of University College London.
mRNA technology is here to stay Messenger RNA is used by our cells to direct protein manufacture. By learning how to hijack that process, Pfizer and Moderna made vaccines in record time. âWe had been hearing about mRNAâs promise for years and suddenly it arrived,â says Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University. âThis could be a game changer not just for vaccines but cancer care.â Robin McKie