What is your Covid-19 story? Some people suffered from long Covid, and some lost over one-third of their university life. In numerical terms, 232,052 British citizens passed away during the pandemic. From a political perspective, the pandemic has shocked British politics since 2020. With the Partygate scandal, the resignation of Boris Johnson, the post-Covid economic decline, and the recent Covid public inquiry, it seems that Britain is suffering from ‘long Boris’.
In 2023, the pandemic and the former Prime Minister still constantly hit the news headlines thanks to the ongoing Covid inquiry. According to the Inquiries Act 2005, public inquiries are major investigations addressing “public concerns” about a certain event or a set of events. They are convened by a government minister and funded by the government, but they are run independently. Without any legal power to judge who is innocent or guilty, they aim to figure out the cause and course of the events and “prevent recurrence”.
What about the Covid inquiry? It did not spark heated public debates until very recently, but organisations like the medical journal The BMJ and pressure group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice have called for a public inquiry regarding the government’s response to the pandemic since 2020. In December 2021, Johnson announced that a public inquiry would take place to “examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”. Chaired by a retired judge Baroness Heather Hallett, it is expected to finish in 2026. At the same time, the Scottish government would conduct its own inquiry.
The brutal and indifferent language blew the public mind, who was frustrated to see how the government battled the life-threatening virus without a basic respect for life.
The lengthy inquiry is divided into several modules. Module one, running from June to July 2023, focused on the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic. After a British Medical Association survey of over 600 doctors suffering long Covid symptoms and six weeks of hearings, lawyer Brian Stanton concluded that the UK entered the pandemic “with critically under-resourced” public health services. For example, just 16% of doctors got the most protective FFP3 respirators, and protective equipment for black medical staff was particularly insufficient. The inquiry also uncovers that the government administration was like “a bowl of spaghetti” as there were over 100 different bodies simultaneously responsible for combating the virus.
The ongoing module two looks into the core administrative governance during the pandemic. Thus, evidence given by leading politicians at that time, namely Johnson, his Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings, and the former Director of Communication Lee Cain, is central. This round of inquiry is more contentious than the last one because of the shocking and irritating evidence. Firstly, the former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s notebook entries in 2020 show that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate” as Covid was “just nature’s way of dealing with old people”. The brutal and indifferent language blew the public mind, who was frustrated to see how the government battled the life-threatening virus without a basic respect for life.
The array of WhatsApp messages from Dominic Cummings is another piece of explosive evidence. The former right-hand man of Johnson texted him saying the cabinet office was “terrifyingly s***, no plans, totally behind the pace”. He then told Lee Cain that the PM was “melting down” and he had to “sit here for 2 hours just to stop him saying stupid s***”. He also accused civil servant Helen MacNamara, saying that “I will personally handcuff her and escort her out of the building” unless the state would melt down with the “dodging stilettos from that c***”. Despite his acknowledgment of the severity of the situation, he went on a trip to County Durham with his family during lockdown.
Cummings’ WhatsApp messages are the most colourful and furious among all, but testimonies from other senior officials are also worth attention. Lee Cain, the former Director of Communication, described that Johnson had the wrong “skill set” to lead the country and made everyone “exhausted”. Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, said there was no “humanity” or “mature conservation” in the government. She also revealed the macho culture in Downing Street that junior women were “talked over or ignored”.
Everyone knew that Johnson was doing something wrong, but nobody spoke out. The death toll kept rising every day, but they were busy sending rude messages and pointing fingers at one another
There was more chaotic evidence in the latest round of hearings. The former Chief of Staff Edward Udny-Lister said Cummings is “not an easy man”, Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” campaign was debated, and it was further disclosed that Johnson would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose a lockdown. The investigation is under way, but it has already shown that Downing Street was an utmost mess during the pandemic. Everyone knew that Johnson was doing something wrong, but nobody spoke out. The death toll kept rising every day, but they were busy sending rude messages and pointing fingers at one another.
While the inquiry has presented Johnson’s incompetence, he tries hard to prove his professional capability in journalism. After he left office as PM, he started to write his memoir and a weekly column for the Daily Mail. In October, he announced that he would join GB News and host a series “showcasing the power of Britain around the world” and delivering his “unvarnished views” on different socio-political issues.
It may not be surprising that he works with the rightist media, but the public has mixed feelings about the show. Some find it annoying that he can talk about important domestic and international topics without any responsibility, whereas others are curious about what he will say. Regardless of the public reaction, the show illuminates the phenomenon of ‘long Boris’. He is going to be on television. His Covid policies have brought everlasting pain to hundreds of thousands of families. His Brexit campaign has shaped the current cost of living crisis and diplomacy. He has affected Tory’s strategies to rebuild public trust. He remains glued to our daily life. He is everywhere.
‘Long Boris’ is not something entirely positive or negative. Instead, it is a neutral phenomenon indicating that many social, economic, and political problems left by the former government still remain unresolved. Covid has been an enormous disaster for the world. Most Covid-era government leaders lost in the subsequent election, and most economies are still struggling to recover. Therefore, it is normal that he remains debatable nowadays.
We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from history. The striking public inquiry provides valuable insights for the current and future governments to make sound improvements in the administrative structure. For example, the government should enhance communication between officials and set up a channel for everyone in Downing Street to give advice and launch complaints about seniors. The whole decision-making process should engage more women, so concerns like childcare and domestic abuse can be addressed. The government should make its human resources management more flexible so that experts outside of the bureaucratic system can participate in policymaking in any urgent situation too. If we do not learn from the past, problems created in the past will never be solved. Then, ‘long Boris’ will never end.
Besides, ‘long Boris’ highlights that all politicians must be held responsible for their wrongdoings in the past
Besides, ‘long Boris’ highlights that all politicians must be held responsible for their wrongdoings in the past. Although public inquiries have no legal power to punish the person in charge, they will be openly blamed and commented on by the public. At the same time, politicians can redeem their public image by exposing themselves to public media. Information and opinions from both or even multiple sides are publicised, leaving the public to make their own judgment and evaluate the persons in charge. If Johnson or any other politicians did anything wrong during the pandemic, they would be investigated and blamed even after three years. Time will not help anyone escape accountability.
More modules of the public inquiry will be opened in the coming months, covering diverse issues like vaccination and government procurement. The future of the inquiry, Johnson and the Tory remains uncertain. Yet, it is certain that the British government has an independent accountability system which is absent in many undemocratic states. The government should use it, make the most of it, and improve it to ensure that they will not make the same mistake again. After all, the future depends on how we deal with the past.