In 2014, Boris Johnson published The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, a hagiographic account of the life of the Conservative former prime minister. Defending Winston Churchill’s “titanic egotism,” Johnson depicted him as “eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes — and a thoroughgoing genius,” and he sought to draw comparisons between Churchill and himself with no degree of subtlety. The fact that Johnson has wanted to be prime minister since early childhood, and that Churchill is his greatest influence, is no secret. But Johnson could not have anticipated that, while Churchill led the country during World War II, he himself would face the greatest challenge of any prime minister since his hero so shortly into his premiership.
Johnson and his government’s response to coronavirus has been shaped by the prime minister’s preoccupation with Churchill. The British response to the virus has been markedly slow and differed drastically from that of every other European country afflicted. The U-turns have piled up: large gatherings were allowed to go ahead, and, as a result, several people who worked at the 250,000-strong horse-racing festival at Cheltenham are now ill with symptoms associated with the virus.
The Conservatives initially attacked journalists and members of the public who criticized Johnson for stating on morning television that “one of the theories is you could perhaps take [coronavirus] on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease as it were to move through the population without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance,” — stating that he was quoted out of context, and that government policy was shaped by science. It then emerged the scientists in question were largely behavioral scientists — from the “Nudge Unit” — and, after intense public backlash and anger at the idea that behavior modification would constitute the plan rather than the state taking the same kind of epidemiological tactics that contained the virus elsewhere, the government backtracked. Johnson said schools would remain open; schools will now close for most pupils on Friday afternoon.
Supporters of the government claim the series of U-turns has been evidence-driven, with the science shifting as the virus progresses. But the science has not changed: the World Health Organization’s advice has remained the same, and it is being cherry-picked by the Conservatives. The government approach is to hold off on adopting the methods used in China, Italy, France, and Belgium until public anger forces them to slowly adopt each precaution.
Johnson’s approach has two clear strands. First, the Conservatives are terrified of spooking business and the markets, attempting to find the cheapest possible way of dealing with the virus. In Johnson’s now-daily press conference on Thursday, he was asked why he had not told pubs, restaurants, bars, and non-essential shops to close. The decision not to do so was heavily criticized; it resulted in small businesses being forced to decide whether to close and take the financial hit without insurance paying out, or stay open and risk further spreading the infection among both staff and customers. “We are guided by the science,” he claimed, despite pleading minutes earlier with the public to avoid leaving the house whenever possible.
Logic is needed as much as science here: people won’t go to pubs if pubs are ordered closed by the government. Here, Johnson seems to prioritize the worries of the insurance industry over the threat to human life. For all Johnson’s conviction that he shares the bold and daring leadership genius he ascribes to Churchill, when faced with a global pandemic that has forced afflicted countries to take unprecedented interventions socially and economically, he has remained cowed and nervous about taking steps that risk disrupting the economy.
But there is also the dangerous insistence that English exceptionalism can defeat the pandemic. The government has advised the public to wash their hands and stay at home, but because it has not mandated shop closures, has delayed school closures, and continues to run public transport, many people have failed to grasp the severity of the situation. Diverging from European policies is seen as a patriotic refusal to align with the European Union; middle-aged and older people are convinced they won’t personally be affected, and the fact that they can go to the pub, café, or restaurants reinforces their belief that social distancing is a mere suggestion rather than a necessity.
Issuing advice to avoid congregating in public without measures to stop such gatherings inculcates a false sense of security in the populace, but it also places the blame for infection squarely at their feet. While the virus particularly affects those over seventy and those with certain underlying chronic health conditions, it does not spare people based on their patriotism or on their mental attitude that life goes on and it will all blow over. People comparing the pandemic to the Blitz, claiming “Britain survived World War II, and will survive this,” have been encouraged by the government’s irresponsibly slow decision-making. They will ultimately spread the bug further and cause more deaths. Johnson’s own father has merrily stated on national television that he will ignore government advice in precisely this vein.
A national emergency on this scale requires strong leadership. Johnson has decades of experience as a senior politician, and two terms as the mayor of London, but he is dragging his feet and refusing moves to control the spread of infection. We already know that the NHS is struggling — I received a text canceling an appointment to investigate a heart condition with twenty-four hours notice, and I was informed that it would be rescheduled “within months.” Failing to institute firm methods to control the virus will lead to ever more risk for patients and staff alike.
Johnson’s strategy is to hold off on making decisions until the public outcry —informed by scientists and the experiences of other countries — is so great that he has no choice but to act. Bolstering depictions of the British as uniquely stoic, resilient, and exceptional is key to his effort to protect profits. That isn’t “Churchillian” leadership, or any other kind: it is cowardly, irresponsible, and will result in avoidable death.