The job of Prime Minister is a difficult one and has become even more difficult in this unprecedented crisis. Accusations have been directed towards Johnson from both political directions, and the cabinet has taken a total of 13 U-turns on policy since March 2020, when the virus first hit. To quote Johnson’s exemplar Winston Churchill, ‘in war, you can only be killed once. But in politics, many times’. In this piece I have tried to evaluate three aspects of Johnson’s leadership since then. These three qualities are: speed of decision making and intuition, ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to instil public purpose.
Firstly, has Boris Johnson acted rapidly and decisively? Well if we consider the delay in locking down and isolating the virus, the answer is no. On the 9th March, the Prime Minister spoke that it was ‘absolutely critical in managing the spread of this virus that we take the right decisions at the right time, based on the latest and best evidence.’ This ‘right time’ was influenced by fear of behavioural fatigue (a line of thought that has since been questioned by experts for its role in policy making), meaning we locked down on 16th March, later than we should have. An early response has been the plaudits of other countries such as New Zealand and South Africa, and in Kerala the health minister isolated the virus as early as January. This early intuition was needed, but instead we later heard how Boris Johnson opted out of all five cobra meetings that could’ve given us this intuition. Looking back, the decision to delay, and this lack of intuition, has cost us.
As the virus has changed from being an imported to a domestic threat, the Prime Minister has faced a different challenge: how do we deal with the rising number of cases? This was met in May with the Five Alert Level plan, where restrictions would be adjusted based on the reproduction level of the virus. But the strength of this strategy has been undermined by optimistic thinking this summer. Back in May, the Prime Minister spoke of having ‘been through the initial peak’ of COVID-19, and thus preparing to come ‘down the mountain’. This however in the light of recent outbreaks and surge in cases has been far from the reality – very likely we are still climbing the mountain. So whilst it was helpful in itself to have a strategy to know where are, the government’s response to it has felt ultimately opportunist, seeking to appease people with premature eating-out schemes, for example, and then subsequently having to later introduce closing measures to establishments. After this optimism, our trust in government has been eroded. In addition to this, as local cases increase, the focus has felt preoccupied with the number of cases. Taking this quote for example, from the Prime Minister’s speech on 22nd September: ‘the iron laws of geometrical progression are shouting at us from the graphs that we risk many more deaths’. These ‘iron laws’ of the graphs suggest that we should be alarmed, and governed heavily, by the way the numbers change. But has the focus of communication in other countries also followed this path? Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand for example, after having local rises in August, stated that ‘it’s not just whether you have cases, it’s how you choose to deal with them as a nation and I personally am incredibly proud of the approach that all New Zealanders have taken to the battle against Covid-19.’ It is important to communicate honestly about the caseload, but within this should be transparency about the government’s response, and their misgivings this summer. Rather than looking eagerly to when we can ease social distancing, we should play the long game and focus on honing an effective response and way of living with the virus for now.
Ardern’s further mention of (in this case, national) pride, brings me onto my final point. Reaching out to national pride and heritage is something Boris Johnson is good at, in his own way. His wartime rhetoric, speaking of a kind of challenge that ‘we have never seen before in peace or war’ (10th May), emphasise a sincere intention to get everyone together behind the virus. In South Korea, regular communications by President Moon Jae-In via video conference has been an effective method of instilling a sense of public purpose to tackle the virus. The decision to have daily briefings back in the peak of the virus, can likewise be seen as an effort to meet this need to communicate to the public about the government’s efforts to tackle the virus, to treat it seriously.
But then when lockdown was being lifted, the messaging felt distant. The scale was nationwide (with certain exceptions, such as Leicester). Alternately, studies suggested that trialling the process of easing restrictions, through localised easing, would have been an opportunity to think ahead and adapt. Beyond this, test and trace has been a privately-imported scheme, managed by Dido Harding (whose appointment has since been criticised as unjust). Rather than trying to run it through the NHS, we have had a system that has felt mismanaged and impractical. Testing was an opportunity to organise regions; to appeal to people as individuals with a role to play in a vulnerable community. Triages in testing were to be expected, as demand is far higher than supply. But this has been a disaster, as workers who need testing have had to drive miles to then find out the facility has the wrong code. In April we were clapping for the NHS, so why should we not trust it with our testing? Public sector testing and local easing, these are aspects that suggest national communities and nation’s pride are being thought of, more so than a Churchillian candour.
Good leadership in a crisis is tricky, and this is not a comprehensive report (this is). Looking forward, leadership out of the coronavirus (and against future crises) needs to be fast and decisive, to reflect transparently upon the handling and in the long-term, and appeal with empathy and compassion to affected communities, in the spirit of our collective values and institutions. Hopefully this crisis can be a point of learning in leadership, not just for the UK but worldwide.
Header credit: foreignpolicy.com