Decisions were made foolishly, chaotically and with a lot of expletives

There is a judge-led inquiry going on in the UK about the central government’s response to the Covid 19 pandemic 2020-2022 whose purpose is to prepare the country for the next pandemic. Critics of the inquiry say it is too expensive, will take too long and is off target – the real concern should be whether lockdowns and other restrictions were necessary and efficacious, they claim.

The inquiry is taking place because there was public concern about the large number of deaths during the pandemic, and it was necessary to hold an inquiry to determine the facts and make recommendations.

Hopefully, the inquiry will determine whether the number of deaths that occurred during the pandemic was of people who died of Covid not with Covid. But it is unlikely that the inquiry will conclude that most deaths were of people who were going to die anyway, or that public concern about excess deaths was misplaced, although it will be interesting to see what the inquiry determines was the true number of deaths from Covid.

In terms of its news value the inquiry came alive when evidence was led from prime minister Boris Johnson’s closest advisers on how decisions were made, to which the short answer is foolishly, chaotically and with a lot of expletives.

Martin Reynolds was his principal private secretary who looked urbane and serious even though he was the man who famously emailed people to attend a rule-breaking drinks party in Downing Street. His evidence was that Johnson dithered over whether to lock down. His deputy Imran Shafi, was more explicit. He noted that he had attended a meeting with Johnson and economics minister, Rishi Sunak, at which he thought Johnson questioned if it was worth having an economy-destroying lockdown “for people who are going to die anyway”.

Earlier on in the pandemic Johnson had suggested he could appear on television and have himself injected with the virus to show the public that Covid 19 was not as serious as it was made out to be. Not long afterwards he contracted Covid and nearly died of it; his temperature would not come down and his oxygenation was dangerously low, and he had to be rushed to hospital in extremis. He should have known better not to jinx himself by tempting fate. He recovered but indirectly his inability to respect the virus brought about his downfall as prime minister.

It was not just the prime minister who made light of the pandemic. His top civil servant was equally disrespectful. Despite clear evidence that this was a highly infectious lethal disease that could cause the death of hundreds of thousands, he entertained the idea of having gatherings of people deliberately designed to get people infected known as ‘chicken pox parties’. The idea was to generate herd immunity. At the inquiry he characterised his suggestion as “heartless and thoughtless”, though, if memory serves, herd immunity was given serious consideration because the general spread of the virus was thought inevitable.

Johnson returned to work but the evidence from other close advisers was that he was not up to managing the pandemic crisis both before or after he was hospitalised. His director of communications, Lee Cains, was probably the kindest but the most damning. It was suggested to him by counsel to the inquiry that Johnson was not up to the job and his reply was memorable even if the judge did not think it was plain English. He replied that the pandemic was the ‘wrong crisis’ for the prime minister’s ‘skills set’, which he said was not the same as not being up to the job. He also told the inquiry that working for Johnson was exhausting because he could not make up his mind and that instead of weighing advice, he followed the last piece of advice he received and then changed his mind.

The inquiry also heard from his senior special adviser, Dominic Cummings of Brexit fame, whose evidence is of little evidential value, unless corroborated by other reliable evidence. He had fallen out with Johnson and was obviously vindictive. His texts, however, show that Johnson was a nightmare PM to work for and that he ran an unhappy ship that was chaotic and dysfunctional. Decorum had given way to macho swearing and misogyny that was shocking and embarrassing to have to listen to.

Cummings and every other witness thought that Johnson’s health minister Matt Hancock was useless and untruthful and needed to be replaced as unfit to be in charge of health. He was eventually dismissed ostensibly for kissing an assistant in breach of social distancing rules, but the evidence suggests that was the last straw. It seems that during the worst pandemic in living memory the UK was in the hands of the wrong prime minister and a useless and untruthful minister of health.

Helen MacNamara was the second most serious civil servant in Boris Johnson’s team. Her evidence was of chaos and misogyny and irrational over-confidence – she called it heroic, nuclear even! They were laughing at the Italian response to the pandemic instead of taking seriously the likelihood that it was just a matter of time before the same scenes of death and serious illness in northern Italy would be repeated in Britain. The UK government response lacked humanity, she said, and failed to take into account the impact of the pandemic on women, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups. Her most revealing testimony was that there was not a single day during her time in Downing Street during the pandemic when social distancing rules were followed, which was in sharp contrast to what Johnson was telling parliament multiple times.

There is no such thing as a right crisis for any leader’s set of skills. Prime ministers and presidents have different abilities but there is one skill they cannot do without and that is the skill of leadership whatever crisis events may throw at them.

Boris Johnson was booted out for lack of leadership and lying to parliament and so will the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak if he does not dismiss his interior minister for insubordination and constitutional impropriety. But that is another story for next week.

Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge