Voices: Branding Boris Johnson ‘nationally distrusted’ isn’t shocking – it’s accurate

Boris Johnson, accompanied by cabinet secretary Simon Case (PA)
Boris Johnson, accompanied by cabinet secretary Simon Case (PA)

One thing I never expected from the “trove” of cabinet WhatsApp messages is to find myself impressed, in particular, by Matt Hancock and the cabinet secretary, Simon Case.

Obviously, they are flawed characters who’ve made some grievous errors, but, with the notable exception of Matt Hancock’s inability to keep his hands off Gina Coladangelo (in breach of social distancing rules), I’ve found much to admire.

So far from them being manic and sadistic mini dictators, they come across as public servants dedicated to following the science presented to them by the likes of the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty.

They were, just as they said, taking every development in the pandemic seriously, and forever trying to break through a wall of public complacency and fatalism, bureaucracy and anti-science misinformation about lockdowns, masks, social distancing and vaccines.

Hancock says the new myths about the pandemic are being perpetrated by people with an “anti-lockdown agenda”, and this time he is entirely right. He was also right to want to “scare the pants off people” to get them to do the right thing, both for their own sakes and those of the community as a whole. That’s what a health secretary in a pandemic faced with an uncomprehending public should have been doing.

Nothing in the leaked messages suggests that the lockdowns didn’t work or were implemented for any other reason than public health – taking pressure off the NHS and saving lives. There may have been jokes in poor taste, but no matter.

Covid was, and is, spread by social contact and can kill. The fastest way to slow the spread of the disease and caseloads, hospitalisations, long Covid and deaths was (and will always be) an immediate break on social interactions. If it can’t be done voluntarily, it has to be done compulsorily. Hence lockdowns.

Whitty and the others perfectly well understood the impact on mental health, children’s education and the economy – to claim otherwise is a vile libel – but their balanced decision, faced with the imminent collapse of hospitals, was the right one. Many lives were saved, and the Covid backlogs would have been even worse if the health system was unable to function for two years. Lockdowns created the capacity to treat Covid and non-Covid patients.

We seem to have suffered a terrible national loss of memory, and forgotten that for much of the pandemic there was little understanding of the potentially deadly disease, no vaccines, little personal protective clothing, no treatments, no easily accessible LFT home testing, and a shortage of ventilators. It was an emergency and lockdowns were foisted on an unwilling government.

What the Daily Telegraph and Isabel Oakeshott are inviting us to believe is that the social distancing, the masks, the lockdowns, the travel restrictions and all the rest were simply unnecessary, or even harmful, and implemented because of some bestial desire by previously blameless public servants to terrorise the population.

It is as if a Tory Cabinet led by a libertarian, Johnson, just got up one morning and decided to impose house arrest as well as destroy the public finances, any chance of implementing the manifesto and winning the next election all for lols and “control”.

The more extreme proponents of this myth rationalise its bizarre assumptions by claiming that Johnson, Hancock, Case and Whitty are all puppets of Big Pharma, globalists, George Soros, Bill Gates, the WEF, reptiloids – and, quite possibly, the Nazis that escaped to the moon. It’s really quite worrying that so many people in supposedly advanced, civilised societies can be seduced by such nonsense.

So I also find myself in fresh, though unaccustomed, admiration of Simon Case, someone at the centre of a system assailed not by a deadly virus but the sinister forces of unreason. It might not seem much, but for the cabinet secretary to acknowledge to colleagues that Boris Johnson was a “nationally distrusted figure” when trying to deliver public health measures was really quite brave. The cabinet secretary advised Hancock that the public should be told to self-isolate by “trusted local figures, not nationally distrusted figures like the PM”.

Case agrees with Hancock on reducing infection rates: “My concern is that we can figure out how to test, what we don’t know how to do is get people to isolate. We are losing this war because of behaviour – this is the thing we have to turn around (which probably also relies on people hearing about isolation from trusted local figures, not nationally distrusted figures like the PM, sadly).”

I’ve been sharply critical of Case in the past. Gifted his meteoric rise to the top of the civil service by Johnson, he’s given the impression of trying to be far too helpful to the prime minister in return, for example by allowing himself to get tangled up in the prime minister’s personal affairs, and potentially compromising the appointment of Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC.

The latest release of information and pictures regarding Partygate, with Case “in the picture”, also suggests that Case, as well as Johnson, has some serious questions to answer about his own role in this affair. Yet there are two (and sometimes more) sides to every story, and, inadvertently, the release of these WhatsApp messages actually shows people in a surprisingly good light.

There’s plenty of “gallows humour”, a sometimes puerile tone, a bit of swearing, regrettable, unkind remarks and much else to be embarrassed about; but also, even with the selective editing, a picture of some hard-pressed public servants trying to do the right thing – rather than proof of some malign yet motiveless conspiracy.

If I were Hancock, I’d point that out, because it might help redeem his reputation – but maybe not this time in a book co-written by a well-known lockdown sceptic.