Below is the behind-a-paywall piece I wrote for the New Zealand Herald on their government’s success in dealing with Covid, compared with the national catastrophe that has befallen their old colonial Masters. Whenever I have made this comparison before, amid the many saying ‘God, I wish we had someone like Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister instead of the blonde blunderbuss,’ there will be others, not least from wannabe Kiwi Arron Banks, saying New Zealand is smaller, less densely populated, more remote, not such an international hub … all true, but none of if negates the fact that every government in the world faced the same kind of decisions, and every leader faced the same test of leadership.
On the density point (and I suspect dense points are the only ones Banks can do), I return to this theme in this week’s New European, out today, with comparisons less easy to wave away with emojis of sheep.
You don’t get much more densely populated than Singapore, 5.63million people crammed together, death toll 25.
‘Tiny, not comparable,’ the sheep-emoji merchants will go … OK, what about Japan, so close to the place where the virus first emerged? Population 126.5million (almost double ours), Covid deaths 916 (roughly fifty times more British deaths than Japanese.) Or South Korea, population 51.2million , Covid deaths 273. Or Taiwan, population 23.8million, Covid deaths 7.
I could go anywhere in the world, and make the same point. Virtually every other country on the planet has done better than the UK under Johnson and his nodding dog Cabinet. So do get The New European, where I do a more detailed analysis of Johnson’s record set against my ten-point approach to crisis management, which I set out in various places at the start of the crisis.
Yesterday, Johnson was adamant that it was too early to draw any conclusions from international comparisons. But ask yourself this … if the UK had done as well as New Zealand and Australia, or as well as those Asian countries, or as well as Germany or Denmark, Norway or Finland, do you think he would be so reticent? Would he hell? He would be climbing Big Ben wrapped in a Union flag, screaming to all who would listen that we had shown the pesky foreigners how it is done … Instead of which … national catastrophe … global embarrassment … it’s what happens when you elect an after dinner speaker as your Prime Minister.
So, meanwhile, at the other end of the world, the New Zealand Herald takes up the story …
“And so, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces a move to Alert Level 1, and a normality of sorts returns for New Zealanders. Twenty-two families still grieve at having lost a loved one to Covid, but for the vast majority of Kiwis, a success story has been written.
Meanwhile, in Britain, many weeks after our Prime Minister said he was ‘squashing the sombrero’ and ‘sending the virus packing,’ with his usual mix of slogan, bluster and homily, our daily death toll remains many times higher than your total death toll; we have passed Spain and Italy in the deaths per million table; the official death toll tops 40,000, and the true excess death figure is now so large, at 60,000 plus, that even Eden Park could not house such a number, and of our famous Premier League clubs, only Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium would be large enough. It truly is a national catastrophe. Johnson, meanwhile, boasts of ‘our apparent success,’ at ‘driving down the death rate,’ and ‘preventing tragedies seen elsewhere,’ and how ‘proud’ he is of the government record. What planet is he on?
At the start of this crisis, when I was trying to give the UK government the benefit of the doubt, I sent a note to ministers and civil servants, initially at their request, and published a version in the Evening Standard, on the approach I felt they should take. It was based partly on what we learned from what we did well and what we did badly during the crises of the Blair years,
- Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy.
- Show strong, clear, consistent leadership.
- Organise from the centre of government.
- Throw everything at it.
- Use experts well.
- Deploy a strong team.
- Make the big moments count.
- Take the public with you.
- Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis.
- Give hope, but not false hope.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Johnson scores zero out of ten. Literally zero. There has been, and still is, no clear strategy. It veered from ignore, to herd immunity, to partial lockdown, now to easing in defiance of scientific advice.
Leadership, even before he was taken ill, was absent, and since he returned he has been more focused on saving Dominic Cummings, his adviser who broke lockdown rules, than in saving the country from Covid. The centre, shredded by austerity and the packing of Cabinet with nothing but true Brexit believers, has been weakened. The team is pitifully weak. Experts are used not for expertise but to provide political cover. The big moments have been bedevilled by mixed messaging. As for empathy, ministers show little concern for the dead and grieving beyond robotic ‘our thoughts and prayers are with them,’ day after day at briefings which have become a masterclass in dreadful communications.
Jacinda Ardern, by contrast, scores ten. Leadership, empathy and competence combine for a winning mix. Her handling, and her communications, will be studied in future as a masterclass in crisis comms. Her framing of the crisis with, for me, the best quote of the entire Covid period, was superb. ‘We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once.’ Likewise, ‘go early, go hard’ was a proper strategic message.
Looking around the world, it is interesting how many of the leaders who score closer to ten than zero, are women; not just Ardern but Angela Merkel in Germany, Tsai-ing Wen in Taiwan, Erna Solberg in Norway, Mette Frederikson in Denmark, 34-year-old Sanna Marin in Finland. And though Scotland has seen far too many deaths, and serious questions are asked of government there too, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has seen her standing rise in the crisis, as Johnson has seen his fall.
It is horrible to feel ashamed of your own country, but right now, because of him and our government, it is hard not to. Until recently, I have identified myself as British, (my passport,) Scottish (my parentage, my heart,) European, (my geopolitics,) Yorkshire (my birthplace) and London (where I live.) Brexit tested that order of feeling. Covid-19, and the Johnson government’s handling of it, has destroyed it. I have nothing in common with these people who run our country. They shame Britain, and they make me feel sick.
Johnson won power by posing as a friend of the people against a mythical elite. It was quite a con, given his privileged Eton School and Oxford University background. The Cummings scandal, and the confirmation that this clique sees itself as people who make rules for others, but do not feel compelled to obey them themselves, has exposed that people v elite myth forever, and exposed Johnson for what some of us have always known him to be – a charlatan, utterly unsuited for any senior position, let alone the highest in the land.
I have known Boris Johnson for many years, since we were both journalists, he for the right-wing Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine, me for the left-wing Daily Mirror. Then, when I was Tony Blair’s spokesman, Johnson would appear at some of my briefings to snort, make jokes, and defend stories he had invented, such as ‘Brussels’ plans to insist on one-size condoms, or ban flavoured potato crisps and bent bananas. He rose to fame by being a figure of fun, and has carried on all the way to the top with the same shtick. A joke has become the nation’s leader, and is making our country a global laughing stock.
What Covid has shown is just how unsuited he is for a serious position; dismissive of the crisis as it bore down on the world; ignoring the experts to boast that he shook hands with infected patients; urging major sporting events to continue even as other nearby countries went into lockdown; failing to provide protective equipment to the frontline; failing to deliver on promise upon promise that everyone who needed a test could get one; thinking, as with Brexit, that all that was required was slogan.
His faux Churchillian addresses have created as much confusion as they were designed to end, and in between times he has hidden away, even before he was ill barely visible, and since only really emerging to defend his adviser, Dominic Cummings, who broke lockdown rules he helped devise, and faced no sanction, but the contempt of millions who had stayed home as instructed for two months.
Johnson rose to the top of his Party by persuading them he was a winner, able to appeal to people other Tories could not and true, he has won a lot. He became Mayor of London, all my life a Labour city; the Brexit referendum, against the odds; he won the Tory leadership, winning support even from MPs who said they knew he would be a disaster; and he won a general election. However, the qualities that got him there – a casual regard for truth, the ability to laugh off scandal, the mastery of turning complex issues into snappy slogans – are the exact opposite of what is needed now.
We have long known Johnson is a liar. What the crisis has shown is that he is also serially incompetent. We are now up there with the US, Russia and Brazil in the death league table, with Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro called ‘the four leaders of the infected world’ by Der Spiegel, the influential German magazine .
And what else do the leaders of the US, the UK, Russia and Brazil have in common? They are nationalists, populists, liars. They reject genuine experts. They are motivated more by their own interests than those of the people. The virus of nationalist populism they share and spread is in its own way as dangerous as the virus which has killed so many of their people. New Zealanders do not know how lucky they are to have a leader, and a politics more generally, a million miles removed from the populists leading these bigger, supposedly better countries.