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Christmas can be a testing time for unhappy relationships and Boris Johnson’s romance with science is already on the rocks. If the prime minister was a faithful lover of evidence he would not relax pandemic regulations for the festive season. If he only had eyes for the rate of coronavirus infections he would not have issued a special five-day licence for household mingling; not while the lines on the graphs are all pointing in the wrong direction.
The US experience since Thanksgiving shows how shuffling the population for a national holiday – moving people across regions and mixing up the generations – causes a surge in Covid cases. Britain’s leading health journals on Tuesday urged the prime minister to reconsider his plan for Christmas.
But science does not have an exclusive claim on Johnson’s affections. He has promised Britain some respite after months of soul-numbing social quarantine. It was his seasonal gift to the nation and he hates the idea of taking it back. He also hates taking responsibility for his actions. Typically, the prime minister’s preferred outcome involves two incompatible things: a simulation of normal Christmas and a health service that is not overwhelmed in January and February, which are its busiest months even in non-pandemic years. The government’s message is characteristically confused – here is a special dispensation to do something you are strongly advised not to do.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, struggled to maintain that contorted posture in a televised coronavirus briefing earlier this week. Asked about Christmas, he described the “really narrow path” that the nation would be treading. He encouraged people to “go no further than they have to” in flexing temporary freedoms. The risk was great, he said, but that had to be balanced with “a strong sense from many people” that gatherings should be allowed. I got the strong sense that he was not one of those people.
It would not be Johnson’s first divergence from cautious scientific counsel. The Sage advisory group recommended a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in late September, when it became clear that a second wave of infections was breaking over the country. It has since been reported that the prime minister had a separate conclave with a group of academics who were more sceptical of Covid virulence. He preferred the second opinion. It chimed with his distaste for restrictions on liberty and harmonised with the chancellor’s plea to keep businesses open. It also avoided confrontation with Tory MPs who see lockdowns as barely diluted tyranny.
But the infection rate continued to climb. The facts were stubborn and Johnson yielded to them at the end of October, sending the nation back indoors. The prime minister had repeated his error from the start of the pandemic almost exactly. Confronted with a demand for urgent action, he hesitated. While every day of delay made a bad situation worse, he procrastinated. That has been the pattern in Britain’s pandemic response – do the right thing after every effort has been expended on getting it wrong; tighten reluctantly; relax prematurely.
Such serial failure to learn from experience comes as no surprise to anyone who has dealt with Johnson in his public roles or his private life. He postpones necessary but unpalatable decisions, like a child pushing vegetables around a plate. He likes to be liked and hates direct confrontation. He has no qualm about betraying people behind their backs, but he has a horror of upsetting them to their faces. MPs come out of meetings with Johnson happy because he has agreed with them and unaware that he agreed with their rivals in a meeting earlier the same day.
A City Hall adviser once told me the story of a planning dispute over a multimillion-pound building project just outside London. It was not under the mayor’s direct jurisdiction, but close enough to be relevant to the capital. The developers produced a letter of support for their cause from the mayor. Awkwardly, so did their opponents. Both missives had to be withdrawn.
The habit of feigning assent to curtail uncomfortable conversations breeds mistrust and disloyalty at the heart of government. (Why defend a policy today when there is every chance of a U-turn tomorrow?) Johnson’s executive weakness transfers power to his gatekeepers – the advisers who get to decide who can see the boss and, crucially, who is the last one to see him before a decision is made. That encourages leaking – getting things into the public domain before the prime minister can change his mind.
Chronic equivocation was inconvenient in municipal government. In Downing Street, during a public health emergency, it is lethal. The decisions are rarely easy, but that is the job. Prime ministers should not have to waste valuable time on easy choices. A well-run administration should filter those out on junior desks lower down the chain of command. But Johnson’s dysfunctional governing style escalates the difficulty of already hard choices. He likes the idea of following science more than the policies mandated by scientific rigour. He lurches between complacency and panic. He agrees with Rishi Sunak that the economy must stay open, but also with Matt Hancock that people must stay at home.
Johnson’s technique for dealing with problems is to let them run out of control, building to a point of sufficient crisis that delay is no longer viable. That way the choice becomes perversely easier because there are fewer options left. Wait long enough and there might be only one.
That is how he has dealt with Brexit. He imagines that brinkmanship is a negotiating strategy to wring concessions out of Brussels, but in reality it is just a way to simplify the decision by eliminating options that needed time to develop. He lets procrastination do the heavy lifting. He can then tell himself (and his audience) that the final outcome, while not perfect, is the best available solution. And maybe it is. But only because it is so late in the day and all the better solutions have long since expired.
It is a chaotic way to run anything: leaving it all to the last minute, relying on a critical mass of external pressure to get motivated. As a way of governing in a pandemic it is disastrous because there is no slack time between deadlines. The moment to make the tough choices is always now. The rate at which good options decay is exponential. The virus thrives on indecision. Johnson’s method is effective for one thing, though: it guarantees a sustained pitch of political drama, with the figure of the prime minister lit centre stage. It forces the nation to hang on his word, waiting for him to act, while the consequences of his inaction play out. That bathes him in an aura of power, but it is not leadership.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Boris Johnson has a habit of delaying tough choices. In a pandemic, it’s lethal | Boris Johnson