Two prime ministers of two major European powers spoke to their peoples late Thursday afternoon.
In Paris, prime minister Edouard Philippe unveiled a steady region by region shift towards normality, with bars, restaurants and beaches to open next week. In London, Boris Johnson announced that from Monday, a family of four could have a cup of tea in the garden with two other people – provided they stay two metres apart and don’t touch too many door handles. Meanwhile, the excess death rate figures gave Johnson, finally, a leadership position in the world: top of the table for deaths per million.
“It’s Happy Monday!” trilled the Daily Mail on Friday morning. Virtually all of the press saw this miniscule yet still risky easing – on a day more died here than in most of the rest of Europe combined, and on which the government’s chief medical and scientific officers were gagged from saying whether the prime minister’s top aide Dominic Cummings had harmed public health messaging – as the biggest thing to happen all week.
The rest of the world, not for the first time, is baffled. Check out a clip I shared on social media this week of an interview with Gabriel Scally, a leading Northern Irish epidemiologist working in Bristol. “I get the rage about Cummings. But where is the rage about the death rate? It is so bad.”
One of my favourite books is a compendium of aerial shots of Britain’s football grounds. There was a time when the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said anything over 20,000 deaths (roughly the number that would fill Burnley FC’s Turf Moor) would be a failure. We have sailed past that, sailed past Brighton (30,750) Chelsea (40,834) and Liverpool (53,394). Past the Olympic stadium (60,000), past Celtic Park (60,411), past the new Spurs stadium (62,062). Now only Manchester United’s Old Trafford is big enough to house Britain’s Covid-19 dead.
“Back of the net,” shouted The Sun, leading on the announcement that, all being well, Premier League football will return to England several weeks after the Germans got their first match. France, Germany – serious countries with serious leaders, and a serious press.
So when football does come back – and nobody wants it back more than I do – just remember what that death toll means in scale, and the heartbreak that goes with it, every time you see the vast banks of empty seats. And never ever forget the role Boris Johnson played in making it happen.
In an interview with the BBC’s Simon McCoy earlier this week, I was asked, even though I think they are useless, and have no strategy, what should the government be doing instead? As it happens, I had been working on a speech on crisis management for a military organisation I do some work with, and was able to reel off 10 points: devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy; show strong, clear and consistent leadership; ensure a strong centre; throw everything at it; use experts well; deploy a strong team; make the big moments count; take the public with you; show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis; and finally, give hope – but never false hope.
Today, Boris Johnson scores zero out of 10. Macron and Philippe get closer to 10 out of 10, though the notoriously difficult French electorate might put a dent in his efforts to take the public along with him. Angela Merkel in Germany definitely scores 10, as does Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Greece, and my friend Edi Rama in Albania. The Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar gets close – although his picnic with friends in Pheonix Park won’t have helped him much – as do Denmark’s Mette Frederikson and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
I could go on and on. By the end I would have found only four names scoring poorly for the major leaders in the world: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson. I doubt it is a coincidence that the populists with the least regard for truth and expertise have presided over the greatest failures.
That is the league to which Johnson has reduced us. And how proud would Trump have been of his mini-me on Thursday, as he muted questions from journalists and gagged people who truly know of what they speak, so that they are not allowed even to nod or shake their heads when asked if it is sound medical advice to drive when your eyesight is poor.
The world is laughing at us. That matters. It does enormous damage to our standing, our strength and that matters to the economy and our power in the world.
They are laughing because Johnson is such a clown. They are laughing because he has in recent days presided over a scandal that is also a farce. But they are not laughing at our death toll. And nor, with the possible exception of Putin, do they find it funny that a country they could always take seriously and rely on as allies is currently out of order, with no sign of a maintenance team arriving any time soon.