“We did everything we could,” said Boris Johnson on January 26, the day that the death toll from Covid-19 in the country he runs passed 100,000.
On March 3 last year, the same day he was warned that people should stop shaking hands, he announced: “I was at a hospital where there were a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody.”
And on May 10 he said “it would be madness now to throw away” the achievements of the first lockdown “by allowing a second spike”. Eighty six days later, he urged people to go back to work, school and university, to Eat Out To Help Out, and the second wave spiked soon after.
He refused to apologise for writing about “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and Muslim women looking like letter boxes and bank robbers, then wondered why the people most insulted by his words did not heed his instructions to take a vaccine.
He lied about hospitals, nurses, doctors and NHS funding, then wondered why it was that all four could be overwhelmed by a pandemic which he decided to stop planning for six months before it hit.
And he presides, now, over a country that has the 145th worst death rate in the world, out of 153 nations. Older populations, fatter ones, and poorer ones, have all fared better than us.
The truth is that Boris Johnson did everything he could to make the Covid death toll worse. The Office of National Statistics says it now stands at 150,835, and it continues to grow.
But there is one thing that he could do to turn all of that around – all the grief and distrust. And it is entirely free. He can walk the wall.
It stretches for 500 metres – so far – along the South Bank of the River Thames, and is visible from the Houses of Parliament. So it would not be difficult for him to find it.
It takes 10 minutes to walk its length. But that’s if you stare straight ahead and stride at a normal pace, and few of us could manage to ignore the sea of hearts that have been painted by volunteers, and annotated, since, by the bereaved.
“Chris Lawrence,” says one. “Dad + grandad xx.” Another has the name “Kyriacos Sandamas” drawn around it, and the words “our hearts are broken” inside.
Edna Skinner. Conrad Ige. Grandad Adebari. Some are just initials – CDA, SMB, BM. It’s doubtful anyone could walk that wall in a mere 10 minutes. How can you walk past a heart with “Tony Taylor, 1951 – 2020, xxxx” written on it, without gazing at it, picturing a loved one writing those words, wondering what Tony was like, or if afterwards they turned and gazed at the opposite bank, where Boris Johnson lives and works.
Walking that wall – so easy, so possible, so simple – would show the country that the Prime Minister is capable of self-reflection. Many voters can forgive a mistake, even a series of them, but displaying a willingness to learn from it would convince millions who doubt the PM’s competence that his need not be a permanent disability.
But a man who sees no reason to apologise for the many stupid and rude things he has said and done probably sees no reason why he should do what Sadiq Khan, and Keir Starmer, and other less-photographed politicians and ordinary people have done. Johnson’s weakness is to always be afraid of looking weak – being emotional or contemplative is, to him, equivalent to being shorn like Samson.
If he did have the courage to face his consequences, he could likewise take a walk down the Shankill Road in west Belfast, where the Withdrawal Agreement he hailed as “a fantastic moment which… brings to an end far too many years of argument and division” is, one year on, aflame.
And if he could manage that, perhaps he could spend a day helping out in a covid-secure crematorium. Maybe he could undertake a visit that does not involve his personal vanity photographer, or hiding in a fridge, and witness what’s really happening at food banks, in school classrooms, at women’s refuges, in care homes, and on the government benefits helpline.
Perhaps he could try standing for 12 hours while looking after and monitoring the vital signs of four intensive care patients, turning them, washing them, comforting them, and speaking to their relatives on the telephone because they’re not allowed to visit, then being told to take a real-terms 32% pay cut.
But a man who cannot bring himself to visit B&Q, or train his dog, or cease a sexual affair while his wife undergoes cancer treatment, is unlikely to have even 10 minutes spare to stare at a wall that speaks more sense than he does.
If only the wall could stand for election.