This week, when Boris Johnson made his first appearance at prime minister’s questions since he nearly died from Covid-19, the new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, got the better of him.
It wasn’t just that the absence of the usual braying mobs of backbenchers played to Starmer’s strengths as a calm, relentless and well-briefed advocate. It was that the questions he asked with such deadly and polite quietness were unanswerable.
With the UK’s virus death toll then standing at more than 29,000, Starmer asked: “How has it come to this?” How indeed.
The answer, as he drove the point home by suggesting that the government had been too slow to lock down, too slow to test, trace and isolate, had failed to provide enough protective equipment to health workers and failed to prevent the shocking number of deaths in care homes, is that it has come to this appalling state of affairs through the government’s incompetence.
Indeed, I would have added to his list the government’s inexplicable failure even now to to stop flights from hot spots and quarantine all new arrivals.
We need much more information before we can understand quite why Britain has been so much worse affected by Covid-19 than many other countries, and how much of a role was played by undeniable government incompetence.
The fact is, though, that we are all where we are and that the UK is not in a good place; and the big question is whether Boris Johnson will now make the right judgment calls in this most difficult and complex of dilemmas.
We wait to see on Sunday how extensively he plans to lift the restrictions on individual activity, but it sounds as if he intends to make only the most cautious relaxations of the lockdown.
This has produced renewed fury and disbelief from those who think the lockdown should not only end right now but that it should never have been started in the first place because the priority should be to protect the economy.
As I wrote here, it is an unfortunate tendency in some people that when they can’t tolerate the consequences of a situation they deny the evidence that it is what it is.
There’s no doubt that the consequence of lockdown has been terrible damage to the economy, and that this will take a toll on individuals too. But the reason it was imposed was that it is the only effective way to achieve social distancing, which is in turn the only way to reduce the numbers who contract the virus and bring it under control.
Yet the “economy-firsters” cherry-pick inadequate and under-informed statistical studies to claim that Covid-19 isn’t as dangerous or infectious as it is, ludicrously representing every move to keep people away from each other and thus save lives as a dictatorial attempt to inflict tyrannical state control over the public.
Libertarians, both on the left and among so-called “conservatives”, are trying to paint the ultra-liberal Boris as a cross between Mussolini and Stalin. Others, less ideological but equally resistant to reality, have convinced themselves on the basis of no evidence at all that more people will die as a result of the lockdown than would have died from Covid-19.
The “economy-firsters” are still claiming that Sweden has shown how to beat the virus without an economically ruinous lockdown. Yet those Swedish experts who are boasting that their strategy will eventually achieve “herd immunity” have in fact – whether or not they intended this to happen – sacrificed thousands of lives to protect the economy.
As the British-Swedish commentator Mark Brolin has observed in horror: “Who would have thought it would be a Swedish Social Democratic government which would, more than any other government, prioritise the economy over society’s most vulnerable?”
He points out that, far from celebrating victory over the virus, the Swedish authorities have been introducing more and more social controls in a desperate and belated attempt to to get on top of it.
For Sweden’s Covid-19 mortality rate is, as a proportion of the general population, many times greater than the mortality rate achieved by its Scandinavian neighbours. Despite the country’s relatively low population density, it ranks no lower than about eighth in the global list of deaths per million.
Far from the virus now dying out in Sweden, the toll it is still taking – not least in its care homes – is becoming ever more appalling. Indeed, even the principal architect of this strategy, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, lamented this week: “We are starting to near 3,000 deceased, a horrifyingly large number”.
From the start of this crisis, Tegnell has been in a consistent state of denial. Last month Hans Bergstrtom, a former editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, wrote:
“Tegnell approached the crisis with his own set of strong convictions about the virus, believing that it would not spread from China, and later, that it would be enough to trace individual cases coming from abroad. Hence, the thousands of Swedish families returning from late-February skiing in the Italian Alps were strongly advised to return to work and school if not visibly sick, even if family members were infected. Tegnell argued that there were no signs of community transmission in Sweden, and therefore no need for more general mitigation measures.”
Now Tegnell says he is shocked by the fact that so many in Sweden have died. “We never really calculated with a high death toll initially, I must say,” he told a TV show. “We calculated on more people being sick, but the death toll really came as a surprise to us.”
Far from criticising such lethal incompetence, Britain’s “economy-firsters” continue to claim the Swedish strategy is the paradigm approach. And with what unbridled glee they have now leapt upon the disgrace of Professor Neil Ferguson, who in inviting his lover to visit him broke the lockdown rules that his own apocalyptic mortality modelling had reputedly panicked the UK government into introducing. With scant regard for either logic or evidence, the “economy-firsters” are claiming his behaviour reveals that he didn’t even believe his own research, thus proving it was worthless.
I don’t know whether Professor Ferguson’s research represents brilliance or charlatanry – although this measured piece by the Telegraph’s global health security editor, Paul Nuki, presents him as an inspired scientist who for years battled Whitehall incompetence and inertia, only to become the scapegoat for egregious errors made by ministers and officials.
Whatever the accuracy of the statistical modelling by Ferguson or the scientists in Britain and around the world who have reached conclusions broadly similar to his own, there are key facts we can all see for ourselves: that this virus is extraordinarily infectious, and that in an unknown number of people it causes not just death but serious and maybe lasting damage to many internal organs as well as blood clots and strokes.
That combination made social distancing a necessary measure to control this virus, just as it has been the key measure for any chance of survival in plagues throughout the centuries; and lockdown is the most effective form of social distancing. Unfortunately, the number of new cases in Britain is still far too high for lockdown currently to be exited safely.
Will extending lockdown cause further damage to the economy, with all that follows? Yes. But the alternative is to risk such high levels of mortality and serious disease that the economy will suffer even more damage, as well as the health service finally becoming submerged.
In my Times column this week, I praised Boris Johnson for his courage and moral decency in reportedly resisting the pressure to end the lockdown on the basis that saving life is his top priority.
There is much about Boris Johnson of which I don’t approve. I have criticised him strongly in the past and no doubt will do so again, not least for his shockingly bad calls earlier in this crisis for which the country is paying an awful price. But now, belatedly, he is at least trying to do the right thing in setting as his highest priority the protection of life and health. In a situation with no good choices, that takes courage.
But there has to be more. The prime minister appears not to be in control of events. He has not got a grip on the transmission of Covid-19. His confused signalling threatens to undermine the lockdown that needs to continue if the virus is to be curbed.
Now he has to up his government’s game, deal with the rank incompetence of Public Health England – and keep his nerve. Otherwise, this may be seen as the point at which he threw his prime ministership, and his place in history, away.