Behind the allegations and the noise this week are some simple truths. We have the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe. And over two thirds of deaths were in the second wave. That’s not hearsay. It’s not opinion. It’s fact.
Behind all the political drama is one more fact. The most important of all. That 128,000 families are grieving, now wondering whether their loved ones died needlessly.
The human cost of this pandemic has been appalling. We all know someone who has been touched by it. Yet despite this, the British people have shown the most extraordinary courage and national spirit.
That national spirit deserved strong national leadership. Leadership which protected our most vulnerable when they needed it. That leadership was lacking. Nearly a quarter of those who tragically died were the most vulnerable of all – those in our care homes.
This was the generation that rebuilt our country after the second world war. You don’t have to believe Dominic Cummings to see that what happened was a betrayal. Care homes and care workers were left exposed and unsupported.
We may never know whether Boris Johnson said Covid “was only killing 80-year-olds” when he delayed a second lockdown. What we do know is that the man charged with keeping them safe showed callous disregard for our elderly, as he overlooked the incompetence of his health secretary.
This isn’t just an argument about decisions taken (or not taken). It’s about leadership.
And this is what really frustrates me. The crisis in the autumn and winter was not inevitable. It wasn’t a choice between two equally bad options. It was the result of avoidable mistakes.
In the first wave we faced an unprecedented crisis. Decision-making was undoubtedly difficult. Mistakes were inevitable. The British public understand that.
But by the summer we knew much more about the virus. The prime minister was warned to prepare for a second wave. He did not do so. And over twice as many people died in the second wave than in the first. That was avoidable and unforgivable.
The failure to fix contact tracing and self-isolation support? Avoidable. The weak border policy which reimported the virus? Avoidable. The delays to lockdown – not once, not twice, but three times? Avoidable.
That was a failure of leadership. A failure to take the tough decisions needed to keep people safe. That failure lies with the prime minster. It goes to the heart of his character and fitness for office. As the second wave grew, his refusal to take advice or recognise past mistakes had devastating consequences.
In the early part of the crisis, Labour supported the government when it introduced restrictions. That was in the national interest. In the autumn and winter, we took the difficult decision to call for earlier lockdowns. Again, because it was in the national interest. Not because it was popular. Telling families that we needed an autumn lockdown and that Christmas should be cancelled was not the easy option. Arguing for stronger border measures was not the easy option.
Leaders should be willing to tell unpopular truths. Boris Johnson dithered and delayed because he didn’t want to do so. His failure to take difficult decisions jeopardised the safety and security of the British people. The only tough decision Johnson took last year was to throw a protective ring around Dominic Cummings, not our care homes.
That matters for three reasons. First, the virus is not beaten. And mistakes are being repeated. Weak, slow decisions on border policy let the India variant take hold. Lack of self-isolation support and confused local guidance failed to contain it. We all want to unlock on 21 June but the single biggest threat to that is the government’s incompetence.
With variant cases doubling in a week and scientists raising concerns, Johnson and his ministers should be relentlessly focused on reducing infections. Instead, they are distracted yet again by melodrama, civil war and covering their own backs.
Second, bereaved families deserve answers. The circus of claim and counterclaim this week underlines the need to begin a public inquiry as soon as possible. There is no good reason to delay until next year. Yet again, Boris Johnson is ducking a hard decision.
And third, we need strong leadership coming out of the pandemic. After 10 years of Conservative government we went into the pandemic with broken foundations. Public services ground down. Huge vacancies in the NHS. Insecure jobs. Poverty rising and life expectancy stalling.
As we come out of the pandemic, we face a fork in the road. We cannot return to that broken system and simply hope to patch it up. We must take a bolder path. To remake our economy so it is built on high skills and high standards. To ensure quality prospects and wages are on everyone’s doorstep. To rebuild public services so they prevent problems, not just alleviate them. To rethink where power lies in our country and who it works for.
Leadership means rising to these challenges. But Johnson has shown he is not up to it. Failure to take responsibility catches up with leaders. It did so over the autumn and winter, with fatal costs.
Every time I meet families who have lost loved ones, I feel the anger and sorrow that they feel every day. The desire to know why.
In moments of crisis, our country needs strong leadership. We didn’t have that when it mattered. We still don’t. And it’s the British people who pay the price.