Boris’ bumbling comes back to bite

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

Charles Dickens’ sage words at the start of A Tale of Two Cities were made for the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, they could not fit any better a comparison of what happened in New Zealand with that of the United Kingdom, other than perhaps with a small tweak to change "times" to "responses".

Past British prime minister Boris Johnson has been jeered and booed in recent days as he attended the UK Covid-19 Inquiry being chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge.

Mr Johnson’s Conservative government oversaw a shambolic and deadly Covid response in 2020 and 2021 with delayed lockdowns which, despite their longevity, did not stop the United Kingdom having one of Europe’s largest death tolls. Since then, more than 232,000 people have had Covid-19 recorded as their cause of death.

Here, lockdowns, border controls and then vaccinations in a far smaller population living in less-crowded conditions were at the heart of a globally lauded and effective pandemic response. About 3570 deaths in New Zealand have been attributed to the virus.

A quick calculation shows there is an order of magnitude difference in Covid deaths between the two nations. In the UK, the death rate of about 0.4% equates to one person in every 250; New Zealand’s rate of 0.07% equals about one death for every 1430 people.

Perverse then that some people here would still boo former Labour Party prime minister Jacinda Ardern if they were given the chance.

In London this week, Mr Johnson has been grilled by the inquiry about the confusion sown by his government and the hypocrisy he exhibited at that time.

Damning diary extracts from then UK chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance have been read out at the hearing, and footage shows Mr Johnson squirming with discomfort.

Photo: file
Photo: file
He has also been upbraided by Baroness Hallett over the "Partygate" scandal, which Mr Johnson lied to Parliament about. She spoke for many thousands of relatives of Covid victims by saying 10 Downing St staff parties during lockdowns had belittled the suffering of bereaving families across the country.

Mr Johnson still wouldn’t have it, saying claims about Partygate were "a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in Number 10" and that they were absurd.

Sir Patrick’s notebook diaries appear to reveal Mr Johnson’s apparent indifference to the spreading pandemic and its effects on the nation’s population, particularly the elderly. Several times, the former PM reportedly said to his Cabinet and ministers they should just "let it rip".

The notebook recollections of Sir Patrick during several months in 2020 are, if accurate, simply outrageous: "He (Johnson) is obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going. Quite a bonkers set of exchanges."

"PM now obsessed with average age of death being 82 (longer than life expectancy). ‘Get Covid, live longer’." And: "PM getting very frustrated — throwing papers down. PM then back on to ‘Most people who die have reached their time anyway’."

Neither does current prime minister Rishi Sunak come out well in the remembrances, with senior adviser Dominic Cummings telling Sir Patrick that Mr Sunak "thinks just let people die and that’s OK".

At the inquiry, Mr Johnson referred to his own experience fighting off Covid with help from the NHS and assured the public he did not minimise people’s suffering and the dangers of the virus. He apologised for making mistakes that cost thousands of lives and at one stage appeared tearful.

While it is clear that Mr Johnson’s performance and that of his closest colleagues was seriously deficient, we all recognise that, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to make judgements about what decision-makers should or shouldn’t have done.

As appalling and upsetting as these disclosures from Sir Patrick are, there is slight unease among some in Britain that highlighting them and going in search of easy and shocking headlines goes beyond the inquiry’s aim of improving the UK’s response to future pandemics.