Boris Johnson made a big error, alright. But it wasn’t walking into a room where his wife had prepared him a surprise birthday cake. It was in overriding his liberal instincts and imposing highly prescriptive lockdown rules in the first place. If, in March 2020, he had stood up to advisers and said that no, it was not the business of the state to micromanage people’s lives – had he banned large gatherings, closed crowded pubs but left private meetings to our sense of personal responsibility – then he would not be in the position he is today.
Moreover, many Britons would not have died alone or succumbed to crippling loneliness. As he has admitted, rather too late, many lockdown rules were simply inhumane. Nor were they backed up by much scientific evidence. As has become increasingly obvious, Covid does not spread well out of doors, and yet for months we were banned from meeting up with friends and relatives in the open air, and even pursued by police drones for taking their dogs on a walk in the wide-open spaces of the Peak District.
Any political leader can err. Woe betide Keir Starmer if he ever receives a speeding fine – now he has tried to establish the principle that any politician given a fixed penalty notice must instantly resign. But what we should really look for in a political leader is someone who can quickly learn from mistakes. The Prime Minister has gone into full grovelling mode, but it was disturbing to hear him the other day suggesting that he would consider going through the whole miserable business of lockdown again. Asked on GB News how he would respond were another variant of Covid to emerge he said:
“I want to avoid any such thing ever happening again and I can’t rule out something. I can’t say we wouldn’t be forced to do non-pharmaceutical interventions again of the kind we did.
In other words, yes, if put back in the situation he found himself in March 2020, he would call another lockdown. Yet again we would find ourselves banished to our homes, forbidden from exercising our own judgement and instead subjected to bizarrely prescriptive rules covering every aspect of our daily lives.
Johnson has often been depicted as being a late convert to lockdowns and was accused by Dominic Cummings of resisting a second lockdown in the autumn of 2020 when his advisers were screaming out for it. Yet by all accounts, he was in favour of calling some sort of Omicron lockdown last December. It was only thanks to cabinet colleagues who asked the right questions and averted it.
A wise and imaginative leader would already be asking: how could a pandemic be fought in future without resorting to the blunt and inhumane instrument of lockdowns? Lockdowns which after all merely delay, not prevent, infections? He wouldn’t be waiting for the public inquiry, he would be having his policymakers come up with an answer now. If he is doing this, there is scant sign of it. It is this, not attending an impromptu birthday party with work colleagues, which is his real failure.