by Sonia Sodha
What I find most unforgivable about the Government’s pandemic response is not the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser breaking lockdown rules, nor a procurement system that seems to reward ministers’ mates, as galling as they are. It is Boris Johnson’s profound inability to learn from his mistakes, which has cost many thousands of lives over the last year.
There’s been a lot to feel relieved about in recent weeks: plummeting death rates, hospital ICUs emptying of Covid patients, and one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world. After locking down too late in March 2020, easing restrictions too quickly, then doing far too little to contain the spread of Covid last autumn, it seemed as though the Government had finally – finally – learnt its lesson with a far more gradual easing of social restrictions. It felt like, if the pandemic wasn’t quite over, the end was definitely in sight.
Yet scientists have been warning for a while that the biggest threat of a third wave is from the emergence of a variant that is more transmissible, more deadly or more vaccine-resistant. Given how low infection rates are here, new variants are most likely to be brought into the country from abroad. But the Government has adopted a consistently lax policy on international travel. Despite India tragically finding itself in the midst of the worst global outbreak to date – with variants under investigation – the Government delayed putting India on the “red list” for three weeks, reportedly against the advice of scientific advisers. The number of people bringing in the B.1.617.2 variant from India grew steadily during this time. And it’s this variant – more transmissible than the Kent variant, and against which a single vaccine dose provides less protection – that has currently got scientists worried about a third wave.
Time and again, Johnson has shown he lacks the political leadership to make difficult decisions when danger is looming rather than omnipresent
We could be OK: the data is still emerging, and B.1.617.2 might prove less infectious than feared. But the fact that Johnson reportedly ignored advice to restrict travel from India sooner shows he still has not learned the broader lesson of this pandemic: with a virus that spreads exponentially, you need to act early when the signs show things are headed in the wrong direction; the longer you leave it, the tougher and more painful restrictions will have to be. Time and again, Johnson has shown he lacks the political leadership required to make difficult decisions when danger is looming rather than omnipresent. He’s been pulled in other directions by fears of short-term economic costs distracting from the worse hit to the economy of acting late by opposition from backbench MPs who do not understand the fundamental trade-offs; or, in the case of the India decision by reluctance to postpone a prime-ministerial trip intended to bag a post- Brexit trade deal.
And so we are reminded, again, of just how terrible a leader Johnson is for these times: someone who prevaricates, incapable of making difficult decisions and too easily swayed by the last person he speaks to. Yes, the vaccine roll-out is going well. But will he waste this progress by acting too late to limit the import of another, even more dangerous variant? Only time will tell.
Clarity for Harry begins at home
I’ve always felt sympathy for Prince Harry: no twelve-year-old should have to go through what he did after the death of his mother; episode after episode of The Crown has poignantly reminded us that to be born into the Royal Family is to be born into a gilded cage; and the media treatment of him and his wife in recent years has been dreadful. So I wished them well when they decided to step back from their royal duties to depart for California.
But it is hard to escape the feeling that Harry has tipped from publicly talking about his mental health struggles in order to reduce stigma – a brave and valuable contribution from someone in his position – into oversharing family trauma. I watched the interview he and Megan gave to Oprah Winfrey back in March with a growing sense of incredulity that the couple did so little to acknowledge their immense privilege, or to relate their struggles to the experiences of others. Now Harry has released a new Apple TV series with Oprah Winfrey on mental health that contains further deeply personal revelations about his family relationships and in which he allows TV cameras into his own therapy session.
I’ve no doubt the endeavour is well meaning, although it fails to grapple with the systemic issues beyond stigma that prevent mental health from being taken seriously around the world. But it is clear that Harry is processing a lot of trauma and anger. That isn’t someone best placed to make finely-balanced judgements about what it is right to share in the interests of advancing global mental health, and what will just end up as lurid fodder for the tabloid press in a way that he may one day deeply regret. I hope he has some good friends around him advising him to heal in private before saying much more.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4