“The interrogations last week were dramatic, but not surprising,” Lia van Bekhoven writes from London about the testimonies heard in the investigation currently being conducted in the United Kingdom into the approach to the corona pandemic.
Psychology probably has a term for it, for people who identify with a character from a novel. There seem to be millions of people walking around who are inspired in their daily lives by Ivan Karamazov (from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky), Hamlet (by Shakespeare) or Katniss (from The Hunger Games). The injustices done to me in my early teens gave me a strong sense of connection to Cinderella. Or with Mariska the Circus Princess. Because parents who force you to do the dishes on odd days didn’t love you enough to be your birth orders. Such cruelty must have meant that I too had been exposed as a baby.
Boris Johnson’s fictional hero is the mayor from the film Jaws, from 1975. For the British former Prime Minister, director Larry Vaughn of Amity Island is, as he regularly says in his well-regarded speeches, ‘the real hero of the story’. In director Steven Spielberg’s thriller, Vaughn is the man who does not bow to the fearful reality, but denies it. Faced with rumors of a giant shark in the water, Mayor Vaughn does the opposite of what you expect in Jaws. He refuses to close the beaches. Because empty beaches are bad for the economy. “It’s a beautiful day,” Vaughn told the media. ‘The beaches are open. People enjoy’. No fencing and no safety measures under Vaughn.
The legal investigation into the corona policy of the British government under Johnson, which has been going on for months but reached its preliminary climax last week, was Jaws not far away. While borders elsewhere in Europe closed to limit the virus, the British remained open. The Italians, who recorded the first virus cases in February 2022, had begged other countries to take measures. “There was laughter at the Italians,” the second-highest government official said when asked about the response in Downing Street. In Great Britain everything kept going crazy. It was business as usual.
When the first alarm bells were sounded about corona in February 2020, Johnson dismissed it as ‘nonsensical nonsense from the media’ and went on holiday for two weeks. The Prime Minister had a book to write about Shakespeare, an expensive divorce to arrange, and was politically obsessed with Brexit. A once-in-a-hundred-years international health crisis could wait.
Johnson would later say, according to his scientific advisor’s notes, that corona is “nature’s way of dealing with old people.” The Prime Minister was willing to throw the elderly generation under the bus in order to keep the economy open. They had to accept their fate. Only to later, sometimes minutes later, switch to the other side and consider strict, freedom-restricting measures. “We are a terrible, tragic joke,” the Cabinet Secretary said of London’s response to the 2020 pandemic.
British executives weren’t the only ones left in the dark about the new pandemic. Almost no country was prepared, scientists everywhere held their hands up and overworked officials drew wrong conclusions.
But there is a difference between making mistakes because you don’t have the right information and the tough, reality-denying, chaotic machismo of the mayor. Jaws. There was ‘dystopian disruption’ in London’s highest levels of government. There was a laziness and arrogance, incompetence and incompetence that you rarely find outside of a satirical TV show. There were lies about contingency plans that did not exist, but above all there was contempt; contempt among themselves and for the head of government. Advisors and ministers called each other ‘useless fuck pigs‘ and ‘pieces of shit‘ and not occasionally, but constantly. Swearing was the common language of employees ‘who were in a permanent state of war’.
The only thing spokespeople, scientists and advisers agreed on was that Johnson, by the politest – or at least the least damning – description, ‘did not have the skills needed for a crisis’.
The Prime Minister was unable to make decisions and bounced like a broken shopping cart from one crisis to the next. The most common reference to Johnson was ‘thetrolley‘; the picture of a shopping cart was the most used emoji in WhatsApp groups. “Boris Johnson was an egotistical fantasist who couldn’t handle his job, a shopping cart who constantly changed directions,” said psychology professor Stephen Reicher. “He ignored corona experts like me because he did not value human lives.”
“There was no humanity,” agreed acting Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara. In the empathy-free working environment of Downing Street, women were talked over, outside they were ignored. There was more discussion about the consequences of distance rules on pheasant hunting than about their impact on single-parent families and shelters.
The interrogations last week were dramatic, but not surprising. Anyone who casually follows British politics knows that Johnson has many capabilities, but lacks ethical behavior and decisive leadership. Were they shocking? Very. Especially because they are not isolated, but are symptoms of a deeper malaise in British administrative culture.