IT was an iconic moment; Boris’s sackcloth and ashes moment. Sombre. Apologetic. Humbled.
The boosterish, Woosterish Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen as the grim UK milestone of 100,000 deaths passed. It was a moment when the whole country uttered a collective gasp of horror at the sheer scale of the Covid death toll; now well passed the 70,000 British civilians who lost their lives during the ravages of World War Two.
How could it have come to this? Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the UK Government had made the “right decisions at the right time” but admitted, with the benefit of hindsight, some things could have been done differently. A tentative step towards an admission that mistakes were made and a prime candidate, possibly, for the understatement of the year award.
Yet, given the unexpected and unprecedented nature of the viral tsunami that has engulfed the world, surely any administration battling the Covid monster would have made mistakes, have had to change tack regularly as our foe shifted its shape?
Seeing the penitent premier on the telly some would have had sympathy for a poor, beleaguered Boris.
Yet it is the dilatory nature of the decision-making, the scale and frequency of the U-turning that has caused so much concern, particularly when so many lives and livelihoods are at stake.
This week, Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson, dubbed “Professor Lockdown,” argued that a lot of deaths in the first and second waves could have been “drastically reduced by earlier action”.
The statistics are stark. The UK’s first 50,000 deaths came during 251 days between March and November; the second 50,000 came in just 79 days between November and January.
During PMQs this week, Keir Starmer had his charge sheet well-prepared, accusing Mr Johnson of having been “slow into the first lockdown last March, slow in getting protective equipment to the frontline, slow to protect our care homes, slow on testing and tracing, slow into the second lockdown in the autumn, slow to change the Christmas-mixing rules and slow again into this third lockdown, delaying 13 days from 22 December before implementing it”.
The PM accused “Captain Hindsight” of performing his own shape-shifting “twisting and turning” during the pandemic and appealed for unity.
However, consensus does appear to exist on one thing; that the blandly named B117 strain, first discovered in Kent, has put back our fight against the virus and made winning it that much harder due to the Covid variant’s easier transmissibility.
Professor Calum Semple, one the UK Government’s Sage scientific advisers, bemoaned how a mixture of bad luck and decades of NHS under-investment had contributed to making things harder. But he also admitted he was “not sure” much could have been done to reduce the death toll, which he chillingly predicted could reach 150,000.
On the credit side of the Covid scorecard, Mr Johnson is gaining points for the UKwide rollout of the vaccination programme – much better than the EU’s – which looks on target to have inoculated the four most vulnerable groups by mid-February.
But as Brussels rages over the EU’s lack of supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Nicola Sturgeon has not endeared herself to Downing St by making clear- to provide “transparency” – she will publish vaccine supply figures from next week “regardless of what they say” in London.
The fear Whitehall has is, if other countries saw how well the UK is doing supplywise, they will pile pressure on providers to divert jag consignments to them; as happened this week with the EU. Indeed, Tory MPs reportedly complained the First Minister was “obviously more inclined to help the EU than she is the UK”.
It might say something about how Covid has changed the political landscape when a “non-ecstatic” SNP leader berates the PM for coming to Scotland, accusing him of breaching her government’s rules on non-essential travel.
Politically, it feeds into the SNP’s narrative that Scotland is discrete from the rest of the UK and that Mr Johnson is some kind of unwanted, feather-hatted consul-general daring to visit an imperial outpost.
During his visit to Glasgow on Thursday, the PM decried “pointless constitutional wrangling” and insisted what people wanted to see was not Indyref2 but “us bouncing back more strongly together”.
Alister Jack in an interview with The this week loyally talked up his Cabinet chum and fellow Brexiteer, insisting he was an “absolute asset” to the Unionist cause in Scotland while in the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg disparagingly branded Ms Sturgeon “Moanalot”.
In the dying embers of Theresa May’s premiership, the FM noted how if Mr Johnson became Tory leader, support for Scottish independence would “sky-rocket”.
Twenty consecutive polls on and the Yes campaign has been ahead in every one with some politicians and analysts predicting not only a pro-independence majority in the Holyrood election but also an SNP one.
While the Scottish Secretary was hopeful once Covid was “in the rear-view mirror,” more Scottish hearts would warm towards the Union, realising its benefits, for now the constitutional hill he and Mr Johnson have to drive up to save the 300-year-old marriage appears to be getting steeper.
One thing Ms Sturgeon will not moan about politically is the electoral effect of Mr Johnson’s leadership.
She must thank her lucky stars for having another Old Etonian toff as her prime political opponent, knowing how, when it comes to the constitution, Boris is her not-so-secret weapon.