John Dolan: It pains me to say it, but UK’s Covid policy has been a hideous blend of appalling tragedy and darkest farce

Boris Johnson stepped up to the plate during Covid-19 - and it promptly shattered under his feet, so says John Dolan
John Dolan: It pains me to say it, but UK’s Covid policy has been a hideous blend of appalling tragedy and darkest farce
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

IN case it somehow escaped your notice, Boris Johnson is something of a fan of his erstwhile predecessor in Downing Street, Winston Churchill.

The UK Prime Minister wrote a book about the wartime leader, and has often been at pains to invite comparisons with him.

Boris’s ascension to the highest office in the land last December was accompanied by VE-Day style waving of Union flags, while his cutting of ties with the EU a month later conjured up images of his hero raising two cigar-laden fingers to Europe — even though Churchill was an early supporter of closer continental union.

So, when Covid-19 arrived on the UK’s shores in February, it was a chance to extend the analogy, as the crisis was portrayed as Boris’s very own Battle of Britain against a deadly invader.

It was a moment that called for Churchillian qualities: Rallying cries for unity, strength, pride and resolve in the face of adversity, orations that would stir the soul of the nation, and ultimately lead Britain to victory.

Alas, Boris stepped up to the plate and it promptly shattered under his feet.

It pains me to say this, it really does, as a Brit born and bred — but the UK’s response to Covid-19 has been an abject and utter disaster from the word go.

I have looked on from afar, often in disbelief, as Boris and his powerbase have stumbled blindly from one crisis to another, like clowns in a circus tent — and it’s a s**t-show that looks set to run and run for some time.

Apologies if the clown analogy demonstrates bad taste — for the UK’s actions have, both directly and indirectly, cost many lives.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. The tragedy of the country of my birth having one of the world’s worst mortality rates for the coronavirus has only been compounded by farce after farce.

Boris’s shameful actions have served to illustrate that not only is he unfit to lace Churchill’s brandies, he is eminently unable to organise a p**s-up in a brewery, never mind lead a coherent response to a lethal epidemic.

One review of Johnson’s book, The Churchill Factor, called it “flawed but fascinating” and that’s about as close as Boris gets to being cast in his hero’s image.

Early in the Covid crisis, he and his allies in politics pointed to this as his “darkest hour”, hinting that his ‘finest hour’ was nigh.

Well, as it happens, many of Churchill’s best-known quotations aptly sum up Boris’s Covid-19 actions — but often in the very opposite way hethat was intended.

“I never worry about action, only inaction.”

Oh, if only Boris had heeded his predecessor’s famous words here.

Early in March, with countries scrambling to lockdown citizens as Covid-19 spread across Europe — with Italy so clearly and devastatingly in the frontline — Boris stood accused of doing nothing.

He reportedly failed to attend meeting after meeting about the oncoming peril, and gave off a disastrously complacent aura.

On March 3, when the death toll in Italy reached 79 and Spain reported its first death, Johnson said: “I was at a hospital where there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.”

This hellish blend of farce and tragedy would be a hallmark of the UK’s entire response.

“A joke is a very serious thing.”

Where Churchill had a laconic sense of humour, Boris is more akin to a court jester.

When he oversaw a meeting to bring more ventilators into the National Health Service ahead of the expected mortalities, multiple sources say he labelled it ‘Operation Last Gasp”. A sick joke in every sense.

At least, by then, the UK had abandoned an apparent plan to avoid a full lockdown and aim for herd immunity. It was a policy Sweden stuck with — and may well ultimately prove the correct one in terms of mortality — but Britain delayed its lockdown long enough to endure the worst of both worlds: A scarily high death rate and little immunity to the disease — assuming the latter even exists.

“We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

I often think it’s unfair to lump Boris and Donald Trump together just because they bumble along, deliver nonsense soundbites, and have blonde locks.

But the Covid-19 crisis gave the world a chance to compare their similar, stubborn responses to this terrible virus, and draw the conclusion they arrogantly thought they knew better than all the experts and politicians put together.

“You must put your head into the lion’s mouth if the performance is to be a success.”

Now that the UK was finally in lockdown, Boris’s role as orator-in-chief became crucial.

Alas, his reckless attitude to shaking hands had been akin to putting his own head in the lion’s mouth, and he fell dangerously ill with Covid-19, along with many of his colleagues.

It was impossible not to sympathise as he battled the symptoms and ended up in intensive care. Now he was missing in action, the scarcity of talent in his Cabinet became plain for all to see.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

With Boris away, his ministers proceeded to make a mess of virtually every aspect of the Covid-19 fight — testing levels fell, PPE equipment didn’t arrive, promises were made and broken at bewildering speed, and it was clear the UK’s tardy response had put it at the back of the queue when it came to sourcing lifesaving items.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Churchill meant this as a rousing call to arms in adversity, but Boris and his Cabinet had little choice but to keep walking through hell, as Britain’s death toll became the highest in Europe.

“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Churchill’s famous description of Russia could equally apply to Boris’s bizarre attempt to explain the end of the UK’s lockdown.

“Stay alert” was the best he could come up with, while millions wondered if they could return to work, or indeed should.

The message was so incoherent, that Scotland, Wales and even the DUP in the North exercised social distancing — and ignored it.

This week, Boris announced all UK non-essential shops would reopen on June 15 while their schools are due to reopen on Monday — way ahead of Ireland’s far more cautious timeline. It strikes most sensible people as too soon, risking a swift second wave of the virus. I only hope that, for once in this crisis, Boris’s actions do not rebound on him.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

All of which leads us to Boris’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, who this week tried desperately to explain to a furious UK why his decision to drive hundreds of miles while displaying Covid-19 symptoms was “reasonable and legal”.

The howls of anguish, anger and disbelief that greeted his literally incredible story — and Boris’s decision to stand by him — were the sounds of a nation who must surely wonder now what kind of jackass they voted into No.10.

It was another scandal to add to the one in which the UK’s top scientific advisor, Professor Neil Ferguson, quit after he was found to have broken lockdown rules by allowing a woman into his home.

Boris knows only too well that, after Churchill’s victorious Battle of Britain, he was unceremoniously turfed out of office. I expect that’s one comparison that will hold true.

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