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“What is the point of this teaching of mine, and of this/Learning of theirs? It all goes down the same abyss.” DH Lawrence’s ‘Last Lesson of the Afternoon’ was probably on Boris Johnson’s O-Level English poetry anthology just as it was mine (he’s just a couple of years older than me).
This evening, with parliament fully rising for its summer break (the Lords was sitting) and politics finally calming down, that feeling of a classroom just longing for the bell hangs heavily in the air. And exactly a year after he first became PM, it’s somehow apt that Johnson has done a “Friday night drop” with a BBC interview that trails his first hint of what he got wrong on coronavirus.
With the schools already on holiday and many Brits hoping for a much-needed staycation if not a quick trip across an air bridge, most people’s attention is drifting away from politics. So Johnson probably felt this was as good a time as any to gently start the long process of edging towards some kind of responsibility for the UK’s huge death toll.
He began the journey last week, when he told Ed Davey in PMQs that “certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened”, confirming for the first time some kind of official probe into the pandemic and his government’s handling of it.
Tonight, he admits for the first time that “we didn’t understand (the virus) in the way that we would have liked in the first few weeks and months” and that the single biggest thing was a failure to see “at the beginning” the asymptomatic extent of its transmission. “There are things that we need to learn about how we handled it in the early stages.”
But on the key issue of whether there was a delay in implementing a lockdown which ultimately cost lives, Johnson said this: “Maybe there were things we could have done differently.” Note that certainly wasn’t him admitting he should have done things differently, contrary to what some are claiming. Those key qualifiers of “maybe” and “could” rendered the whole sentence so vague as to be not very useful at all.
Still, it’s a start and this will be a long road, one suspects, to culpability or some kind of reckoning. There was also, however, another strong hint that he will try and spread the blame, saying that when you “listen to the scientists”, these issues of timing of lockdown are “very open questions as far as they are concerned”.
I’ve wondered in the past why the PM hasn’t started talking about a national memorial to all those who have died from Covid. The government’s own latest total for the number of such deaths stands at 45,677. But maybe it’s that fear of a second wave, one that will have even less hiding place for him politically, that means the numbers could grow so substantially that any attempt to record those lost will be rapidly overtaken by events.
There could be further iterations of Johnson’s admissions of mistakes in coming weeks or months, as some around him know a form of acknowledgement has to be made. Contrast though the way Nicola Sturgeon has herself been much more frank for what may well be similarly catastrophic blunders on care homes and other issues in Scotland.
The First Minister has already said: “We will all have made mistakes, and I will learn from those mistakes.” Sturgeon added: “I will probably for the rest of my life, not just the rest of my time as First Minister, look back and ask ‘did we do everything we could have done?’ These are horrendously difficult judgements that we’re making as best we can.”
Those words were a reminder why polling now shows that even some Brexit-voting Scots and previous ‘No’ voters in the 2014 referendum think Sturgeon has handled this crisis much better than the PM. The scientific advice has been the same for both of them, and their solutions roughly similar, but their handling of scrutiny and questions has been very different. With the break up of the Union possibly Johnson’s biggest political challenge this parliament, he needs to learn those lessons too.
If Johnson were as frank and open as Sturgeon, he could also perhaps clear the political space ahead of that independent inquiry, even as the winter battle with flu and covid looms. He and his newly minted government have been stress-tested like no other in recent memory over these past few months. But the virus won’t be going on a holiday this summer, and neither should the PM’s conscience.
Quote Of The Day
“There’s all these anti-vaxxers now. They are nuts, they are nuts.”
Boris Johnson on why vaccination is the key to fighting the pandemic
Friday Cheat Sheet
New measures to curb obesity are due to be unveiled by the PM and Matt Hancock next week, including a ban on TV junk food adverts before 9pm and a possible total ban on online ads.
Older people were “catastrophically let down” and many died before their time in the pandemic, Age UK has told a Commons cross-party inquiry chaired by Lib Dem MP Layla Moran.
Around 30 million in England - including all over-50s - are to be offered a free flu vaccine this year, the prime minister said.
False claims that a dead union member was given a vote in a narrowly fought selection battle to succeed Unite’s Len McCluskey should be “treated with the contempt they deserve”, a leaked report into the affair has revealed.
A 40-year-old man has been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison after attacking the Guardian columnist Owen Jones.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens urged Ofcom to review the licence of Russian news agency RT in the light of “troubling revelations” in the ISC report.
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This is the final WaughZone before parliament returns in September. It’s been a frantic, long run since last summer and I need a break and you probably do too. Many thanks as ever for all your emails, phone calls, tip-offs, comments and general goodwill that makes this all worthwhile. See you the other side of the break...