It happens that the health authorities in Britain have a great deal of competence, but they are working in a public health system that has been starved of resources for a decade of government-applied austerity, coupled with an exodus of thousands of health staff as a result of Britain leaving the European Union, from which many of the health service’s nurses and doctors come.
Johnson’s government floated the possibility of encouraging retired homegrown health workers to return to the colors, not a few of whom had mixed feelings in response: Retiring from an overworked, underfunded and stressed system, they feel the irony of being needed now when they were ignored before. They also feel that, as retirees whose age makes them most vulnerable to the ravages of covid-19, the request to step up to the front line is not an especially agreeable one.
One of the main problems with Johnson as a leader in a crisis is that he is a blusterer, well-known for bluffing his way through interviews and speeches, lacking command of technicality and detail, adept chiefly at distracting audiences by sudden and irrelevant changes of subject and attempted jokes, as he did in a notorious 2013 interview when answering questions about whether he hoped to become prime minister by bizarrely responding: “I would like to be the lead singer of an international rock group. I mean, that was my aim.” Needless to say, he did eventually assume that role, but he has maintained his earlier approach since his more recent rise to power. In a meeting about Brexit last year, for example, he reportedly “retorted with Brexit nearly every question you asked him.”
This is not reassuring in a time when people feel genuinely concerned and are looking for authoritative reinforcement of the advice that agencies are issuing about precautions. An indicator of his lack of effect in reassuring the populace is the panic buying, which is emptying supermarket shelves of such necessities as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, because people are nervously expecting that a general quarantine might become necessary if the epidemic worsens.
Governments have an obvious dilemma when an epidemic threatens their country: Imposing restrictions on travel both outside and within their borders has an effect on the economy. Stock markets have already slipped into panic mode, not preparing for, but expecting, the worst. Broker sentiment is an ungovernable thing; no government can prevent its effect on the more general national mood. When billions come off stock prices, it is no wonder that supermarket shelves start to empty.
Nevertheless, a leader of stature and calm, a strong presence in the public mind, performing the symbolic and practical function of speaking to and for the nation as well as heading its administration, can have a moderating effect on concern. Britain lacks such a leader, and I venture to add so does the United States. Bluster and bluff on one side of the Atlantic, and bloviation coupled with dismissive incomprehension on the other, are no help in the circumstances. The appearance of incompetence and weakness makes every bad situation worse: the domino effect exacerbating a time of danger.
Johnson likes to think of himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, adopting the hunched pose and bulldog-jaw profile in imitation. The effect, in the circumstances, is comic. Churchill had to be restrained by his military advisers in the dark days of war because he was not a strategic genius, but he had a persona that could stiffen the sinews of a nation, and his posture of defiance was a tonic. Johnson has a quite different persona, and his postures, when not comic, are merely dismaying. In an appearance with two government scientists last week, he awkwardly tried to reassure, forcing the experts “to deliver a cold dose of reality,” as the Guardian put it. And, in a widely mocked appearance on “This Morning,” he declared: “One of the theories is, perhaps you could sort of take it 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.” Though he went on to suggest that this potentially disastrous approach didn’t align with his own intentions, his stumbling delivery all but ensured that no one could track his more reasonable policies, leaving the government’s official position unclear. Neither is there confidence in his chief political adviser, one Dominic Cummings, known to the satirists as Cominic Dummings, who is even more wayward and eccentric than Johnson.
In Johnson’s case, the covid-19 crisis could therefore prove a significant point in his political career. It is a sullied career, and he is far from popular with everyone. Yet in the general election three months ago his party, under his leadership, won a huge majority in the House of Commons, courtesy of the dysfunctional electoral system we Brits share with our American cousins: the “plurality,” or first-past-the-post, system. With 29 percent of the total electorate, he won a majority of 80 seats over all other parties, who between them had won a majority of votes cast, but were divided.
Covid-19, at that point, was still quietly building in Wuhan, China, and thoughts about the desirability of stable, sensible and mature leadership, capable of understanding the relevant facts and courageous enough to make difficult decisions, were already on people’s minds in relationship to Brexit. The Brits’ American cousins know what it feels like to have a highly questionable individual handed the levers of power; now that a serious test of leadership impends, we may all know what it is like to have such an individual pulling them. In that respect, confidence in Johnson should be as low as concern about covid-19 is high.