BORIS JOHNSON got there in the end and made the correct decision to close the nation’s schools in the face of the surge of the coronavirus which is stretching the NHS to breaking-point. But he failed to learn the lesson of the first lockdown in March, or of the seemingly countless U-turns into which his Government has been forced since then: a too-little-too-late approach does not merely postpone hard decisions, but actually makes things worse.
On Sunday morning, no fewer than six times, the Prime Minister assured parents that sending children to school was perfectly safe. By Monday evening, he had closed the nation’s schools, insisting that they were “vectors of disease”. His supporters’ insistence that his about-turn was caused by new information on Monday morning was unpersuasive. His scientific advisers had told him on 22 December that schools should not reopen, given the exponential spread of infections caused by the new variant of Covid-19.
Mr Johnson’s habitual prevarication and procrastination did more than cause confusion among teachers, who, overnight, had to switch from finalising plans and rotas for widespread classroom Covid-testing to preparing for seven weeks of online teaching in just 12 hours. It also sent three million children to mingle with one another for a single day before returning to their homes to bring infection back to their families. Small wonder that the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Committee, has described his own Government’s performance as a “huge shambles”.
We may never know how many additional infections that single day will inflict on their parents and grandparents, but John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggests that a total UK death toll of more than 100,000 is already “baked in”, given the inexorable conveyor between infections, hospitalisations, and deaths. History may well attribute responsibility for many of them to the weakness of Boris Johnson, a man so desperate to be liked that he repeatedly shies away from hard decisions until he is given no option but to grasp the nettle.
Few of his political colleagues have the character to confront him over his incorrigible vacillation. His Cabinet was selected for its ideological purity over Brexit. There was no place for traditional Tory pragmatists. But ideologues are of little use in a pandemic, which requires pragmatism of a high order.
“Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson”, one teacher told me, “have absolutely no idea of the practical consequences of their flimflamming — getting to grips with new online technologies, the double work involved in teaching students in school and printing off 20 sets of resources for the rest to work at home, scanning in marked work and emailing it back, and teaching without having any idea of whether students will be assessed through exams, course work, or whatever. Neither of them would have any idea.”
That teacher is not alone. This week, two Conservative backbenchers who arrived in Parliament only last year submitted letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs which governs leadership contests. Both expressed No Confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership. “I’m completely fed up,” one told the Financial Times. “He just can’t lead and this can’t go on”.