As calls for an independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic grow, is Boris Johnson beginning to acquire that haunted look? At his press conference on Wednesday he looked particularly uncomfortable being asked about Britain’s appalling mortality rate compared with other countries and only offered the weak line that it was too early to think about it.
That trademark smirk nowadays puts in only the occasional fleeting appearance and has been replaced by the look of a man worn down by the weight of office and starting to realise the game is up.
This morning it was announced that bereaved families are demanding an “immediate public inquiry” with the threat of a legal challenge if the government refuses. A petition calling for this, organised by campaign group March for Change, has over 100,000 signatures and is increasing daily. Pressure is mounting on Johnson to do so.
Scientists and medics wrote an open letter to The Guardian this week saying there was an urgent need to “fix shortcomings” in Britain’s coronavirus response, which has led to the UK suffering one of the highest death rates in the world. Half of the 27 signatories are professors in virology, public health, epidemiology or other relevant fields – so they can hardly be dismissed as politically motivated.
The Daily Mail yesterday morning had the results of a YouGov poll showing public approval of Britain’s handling of the crisis is the worst in the world, level with Mexico at -15 per cent and below that of President Trump in the USA, which has a death toll of over 100,000.
The prime minister knows that suggesting comparisons with other countries is premature can only be a stopgap solution. Sooner or later, as the UK official death toll creeps towards 50,000, he will have to grant a public inquiry. International comparisons will be made and he will be judged guilty of complacency at the very least.
His Superman speech in Greenwich on 3 February, where he talked about the “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” and decried the suggestion of “barriers going up” because of what he said was 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”, will come back to haunt him.
Likewise, the five consecutive Cobra meetings he skipped while enjoying a break at Chevening with his girlfriend during the parliamentary recess, despite criticism that he was “shirking responsibility”. When other world leaders were taking personal charge of what the World Health Organization on 30 January had designated a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, Johnson was dismissing other countries’ preparations and swanning around Kent on a break.
On Wednesday, the science and technology select committee heard from Professor Neil Ferguson that the delay in triggering the lockdown may have contributed to more than half the deaths. In other words, if we had locked down earlier over 20,000 people might still be alive.
But it is not only the coronavirus response that is troubling the usually insouciant Johnson. It is now almost fifteen months since the intelligence and security committee (ISC) completed its report into Russian interference in Britain’s democratic institutions, and more than seven months since it was handed to the PM to publish.
The general election conveniently allowed the publication of the report, widely thought to be critical of the Conservative party and some of its members, to be delayed. The report cannot be published until a new ISC is convened and that is dependent on Johnson himself appointing a chairperson, which he has failed to do. It seems to be the only committee not to have been reconvened six months after the election.
Johnson himself is close to Alexander Temerko and Yevgeny and Alexander Lebedev and is said to have enjoyed lavish parties at Yevgeny’s castle hideaway in Umbria. All three are believed to have connections to the Kremlin at the highest level. Alexander Lebedev was a former member of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police force and primary security agency.
As the prime minister’s poll ratings tumble he may well wish he had allowed the Russian report to be published last year and got out of the way. Now he will be coming under ever more sustained pressure to allow the publication of this potentially damaging report and hard on its heels, the opening of an inquiry into his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
On top of this, the UK is forecast by the OECD to be the worst hit of all advanced economies, seeing a fall of 11.5 per cent of gross domestic product in 2020 even if we avoid a second wave, with unemployment set to double and not return to pre-crisis levels for several years.
Only this morning the Office for National Statistics confirmed the economy fell by a record 20.4 per cent in April alone. This is more in one month than in any year since records began and totally “off the scale”. It is at least ten times greater than any previous drop.
A meeting with EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen is scheduled for Monday in an attempt to “reset” the future relationship talks which have been at an impasse for weeks. This is yet another looming crisis, as major decisions are needed on Brexit and whether to unleash a “hammer blow” on British businesses by leaving without a trade deal, or accept the EU’s proposed deal.
The former would further damage Britain’s battered economy while the latter would spark a civil war in the Tory party, where Johnson’s popularity is already under strain with vitriolic attacks even from his erstwhile supporters, Tim Montgomerie in the New Statesman and Alec Massie in The Spectator, over his senior adviser Dominic Cummings.
If Boris Johnson does not already have a haunted look, he very soon will