I’m very relieved and pleased that Boris Johnson is responding to intensive care treatment in hospital.
Whatever your political persuasion, it’s been extremely concerning to see the British Prime Minister fighting for his life, and we should all wish him a full and speedy recovery.
But the health of one man, however important he is, shouldn’t turn attention away from the horrifying new coronavirus death figures for the UK.
Nearly 1000 deaths were recorded in the past 24 hours, a massive spike in fatalities that now puts us on a trajectory to potentially having the worst death rate in Europe.
This shocking revelation came on the same day that the highly respected Reuters news agency published a deeply worrying in-depth investigation into Britain’s handling of this crisis which exposed a litany of appalling complacency and catastrophic mistakes.
Its headline was damning: ‘Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm.’
This confirmed a nagging feeling I have had for weeks – that the British government’s repeated mantra of ‘we’re following the science’ is horribly flawed, because our science has been horribly flawed.
Pictured left to right: Public Health England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, de facto Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Downing Street chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance at the daily government press conference on Tuesday
And worse than that, this mantra exposes a chronic failure of leadership.
It’s such an easy thing for government ministers to hide behind ‘experts’ during a war. That way, it’s never their fault and they never have to be accountable for anything that goes wrong.
But the greatest leaders don’t blindly follow expert advice, especially when it conflicts with other expert advice not just in the UK but around the world.
Instead, they listen to all of it and then reach their own conclusions.
Churchill frequently argued with his generals and sometimes over-ruled them. He knew that ultimately the buck stopped with him.
In fact that is the way our constitution is arranged. Experts, be they military or medical advise on and execute policy but it’s the politicians who make the hard final calls. That’s what they signed up for. That’s what we elected them for.
Frankly, to constantly hide behind advisory experts is buck-passing cowardice.
Downing Street chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance is pictured at No10 on Tuesday
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty is pictured alongside his colleagues at the daily Downing Street press conference on Tuesday
Yesterday, I got into a blazing argument on Good Morning Britain with London mayor Sadiq Khan when he tried to defend not providing the city’s bus drivers with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) despite nine of them dying from coronavirus.
He protested that he was ‘following the advice of experts’ who said the drivers don’t need full PPE.
To which I retorted it was high time he followed common bloody sense, because self-evidently they do need it urgently – and more will die if they don’t get it.
I suspect Khan knows this and agrees with me.
But the shameful truth he doesn’t want to admit publicly is that we simply don’t have enough PPE for front line NHS health workers let alone others in the coronavirus war support system like bus drivers, shop assistants, pharmacists, teachers, police officers, binmen and mail workers.
We’re sending all these brave warriors out to war with their hands tied behind their back.
And they’re dying as a result, including eight health workers.
The Reuters investigation will, I’m certain, form part of a major inquest into all this once it’s over.
And it will doubtless establish what everyone already knows: Britain was woefully ill-prepared for this pandemic.
But it’s what is going on right now that we should be laser focused on – because it seems to me like we’re pouring fuel onto the already raging bonfire with more chronic ineptitude.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (left) was asked to deputise for the Prime Minister (right) after he went into intensive care on Sunday
Boris Johnson, whether you like him or not, is a forceful personality who has led the government in the bullish lead-from-the-front style that won him a thumping election win last December.
He relished the buck stopping with him, even if I believe many of his decisions – like allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead – have been dangerously wrong.
But now he’s lying in an intensive care unit, and unable to lead the war effort, there is a power vacuum at the heart of our government that causes me deep concern.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been made temporary ‘de facto’ Prime Minister, but not been given full Prime Ministerial powers.
We’re told the cabinet will be making collective decisions while Boris is absent, but as anyone who’s run any business will tell you, that never works.
Someone needs to be the boss.
I’ve been berated for repeatedly asking whose finger is now on our nuclear trigger, yet what could be a more important question?
I didn’t ask it because I expect there to be an imminent need to deploy our nuclear defences (though we should always be prepared for the unpredictable, as current events show).
I asked it because the answer would clearly establish who is actually running the country, and the fact nobody in government will tell us is very troubling.
Is it still Boris Johnson from his ICU bed?
Is it Dominic Raab?
Or is it someone else?
Before Boris went to hospital, we all knew it was him.
So, the public is entitled to know who it is today, and the government needs to know who is leading them.
On a wider point, ministers are still hiding behind ‘experts’.
Paramedics are pictured rushing a coronavirus patient into an ambulance
They appear at the daily press briefings flanked by the likes of Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, or Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance, and defer all tough questions about our virus-combating strategy to them.
Yet they’re not supposed to be running the country.
They’re just supposed to offer advice, and it is the elected politicians who are supposed to then make decisions.
Our medical and scientific experts haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory through this crisis.
As the Reuters investigation shows, they were disastrously slow to act on the health crisis, and that shamefully complacent response cost us hugely valuable time to properly prepare for enough tests, PPE, and ventilators.
Then they advised an even more disastrous policy of ‘herd immunity’ that would have deliberately infected as many people as possible, and, they only belatedly realised, would have cost up to 500,000 lives.
(This is why Cheltenham went ahead, and many who attended caught the virus)
They also advised we should stop all testing on non-hospitalised coronavirus cases, in direct contradiction of World Health Organisation guidance based on how countries like China and South Korea had successfully combated the virus – only to then humiliatingly reverse that policy a few days later.
Now, they’ve advised we should be in lockdown, yet we’re not really in lockdown at all.
Our airports remain inexplicably open to 1000s of people flying in unchecked from all round the world including corona-ravaged places like China, Italy and New York.
And millions of Britain’s non-essential workers are still being urged to go out to work, despite the endless ‘STAY AT HOME!’ mantra.
In doing so, they are cramming like sardines onto public transport and exposing themselves and many essential workers like NHS staff to risk of infection.
None of this makes any sense, and it certainly isn’t a lockdown of the kind we’ve seen in so many other countries.
Yet still our ministers hide behind ‘following the science’ when following common bloody sense would clearly seem a much smarter option.
The UK’s death toll in this war is escalating dramatically, and I fear that is entirely down to our lack of proper preparation and our ongoing failure of leadership.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday declared her country is winning the battle against coronavirus with just 29 new daily cases reported, taking the total to 992 cases and just one death.
She cited firm action she took early as the reason.
Ardern closed New Zealand’s borders on March 19 – and imposed lockdown on March 26.
She also ordered testing to begin from January 22, when the virus first made global headlines; as a result, one in 97 New Zealanders has been tested compared to just one in 235 people in Britain.
Australia has seen similar success with early draconian lockdown, enforced self-isolation for people flying in (including bans on flights from countries like China and Iran) and impressive testing (one in 80 people) – and has suffered only 51 coronavirus deaths so far.
It’s looking more and more evident that Britain has got this horribly wrong from start to finish, and I suspect that’s one of the reasons why some people continue to defy government advice on vital things like social distancing – they just don’t believe what they’re being told.
If ministers want to regain the confidence of the people they need to start treating them like adults with proper transparency on what we can expect now.
How long will this lock down go on and what is the plan to get us out of it?
What exactly are they doing to achieve the treatments, mass testing and long-term international travel restrictions we will need to get people safely back to work without risking new flare-ups.?
It’s way past time our parrot-like ministers got a grip, stopped passing decision-making accountability to increasingly discredited ‘experts’, and did what they’re paid to do: LEAD.