On Friday 8 January 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced that the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, is to star in a new wave of adverts on TV, radio and social media in a renewed effort to ensure that the public comply with lockdown 3.0 south of the border.
Prior to the start of the pandemic, Whitty was hardly a household name in his own household, despite his sterling work to manage the risk to the UK from Ebola in 2014. Nearly a year on, England's Chief Medical Officer along with Sir Patrick Vallance, Professor Jason Leitch, and Dr Gregor Smith – who was confirmed as Scotland's Chief Medical Officer on a permanent basis just before Christmas – have now found themselves at the centre of public life.
For Hugh Pym, the BBC's Health Editor, the unassuming, honest and fiercely intelligent Whitty 'will probably have the greatest impact on our everyday lives of any individual policymaker in modern times'. In March 2020, John Crace memorably dubbed Whitty (who is also the UK Government's Chief Medical Adviser and the DHSC's Scientific Adviser) 'the Geek-in-Chief' who possesses a 'near-total' command of his subject and an unshakeable ability to communicate that knowledge effectively, even when confronted with the myriad of utterly incomprehensible slides during No.10 briefings.
In a sense, Whitty and his fellow public health officials across the United Kingdom are living proof of Sir John Major's assertion that it is very much in our national interest not to malign experts and to do our utmost to ensure that 'public service should remain a career that attracts some of the very best brains in the country'. Whilst Michael Gove memorably claimed that 'people in this country have had enough of experts', Whitty et al's prominence would indicate that the majority of the country do not share his assessment.
While Whitty will stress that 'COVID-19, especially the new variant, is spreading quickly' and putting many 'at risk of serious disease', one has the sense (yet again) that the UK Government – which, in the absence of a devolved administration, is responsible for public health in England – is frantically firefighting as cases rise exponentially.
As a typically anonymous Downing Street source told The Guardian
last week, from both the scientific data and anecdotal evidence, it could be suggested that some of those under the Prime Minister's charge are not treating this lockdown with the seriousness that the situation warrants. Another (again anonymous) source told the same paper that 'compliance is the big thing', with the informant keen to stress that 'individual, small acts… add up to a big impact'.
Although Whitty is a reassuring presence, I think it is a damning (and depressing for those of us who still see something noble in public service) indictment of the state of our shared politics, that an until recently anonymous public health official can deliver a more convincing and respected message than our elected Prime Minister. The contrast is particularly revealing when the two are side-by-side: where Whitty is specific, authoritative and sombre; the Prime Minister is ruffled, a smirk never far from his lips, unable to summon detailed scientific data in his extended answers to questioning, and perpetually searching for the lofty metaphor.
After the Prime Minister's New Year message, when he proposed that 2020 had seen us rediscover 'a spirit of togetherness', Alastair Campbell offered Johnson the following pertinent advice:
1. Get a comb
2. Stop lying
3. Stop smirking
4. Stop trolling
5. Stop sloganising
6. Stop over-promising
7. Stop treating Parliament with contempt
8. Instead of clapping for nurses, pay them
9. Get a grip of your dad
Whilst I do not deny that, with a once in a century pandemic, he has been dealt a tough hand, it is not a novel observation that the Prime Minister is not up to the job – his desire to be the bringer of light and joy rendering him seemingly unable to make a proactive decision. Sir Max Hastings, who was Editor at the Daily Telegraph
during Johnson's stint as its Brussels Correspondent and memorably suggested he is more Alan Partridge than Winston Churchill, believes we should be aghast at the manner in which we are being governed 'by leaders bereft of respect for the virtues of discipline, procedure, [and] the civil service'.
Nearly a year on from when COVID-19 first took hold, with over 1,000 people per day losing their lives to the virus and the death toll across the UK sitting at over 80,000, the Prime Minister's deficiencies are even more excruciating than they were when he first took office. It is increasingly apparently that the governing process behind the famous black door in SW1A has become evermore lackadaisical, with no-one ensuring that the basics are done properly. For example, despite having announced a third lockdown for England the day before, in his first briefing of the New Year on 5 January, Johnson failed to give any indication of how and why he had reached that decision and, as John Crace noted, offered 'nothing on the delays, confusion and ignored advice over recent weeks'.
Although the Prime Minister 'likes to talk a lot about levelling up', Crace observes that 'the one thing he appears unable to do is level with himself and the country'. The Guardian's
parliamentary sketch writer compellingly suggests that, for a Prime Minister who bristles at any dissent, the very recent past is 'a different geological era, a place that does not bear scrutiny' and is 'certainly… not worthy of apology'.
Whilst no Prime Minister, no matter how effective, is able to right every wrong of an underperforming administration, leaders set the tone and the mood for those around them. The steer that they give is fundamental to the level of trust that the public invests in it and the respect they accord it. Renewed urgency, sharpness of suit, coherence of thought and a façade of stability can give life to even the most lacklustre government. As Barack Obama notes in his recent memoir, A Promised Land
, the power of their offices gives Presidents and Prime Ministers the ability to 'articulate a vision and set a direction for the country; promote a healthy organisational culture and establish clear lines of responsibility and measures of accountability'.
For 'Sunny Jim' Callaghan – who, 42 years ago this week, landed at Heathrow Airport from a summit in Guadeloupe to deny that there was 'mounting chaos' in the country – Prime Ministers were both 'a guide to lead the nation into the future' as well as a 'trustee of all that was best in our past'. With Boris Johnson, we are blessed with neither. Where his predecessors Harold Macmillan believed 'quiet calm deliberation disentangles every knot' and Winston Churchill called for 'Action this Day', we have a Prime Minister who opts for inaction every day.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly