Boris Johnson’s test of leadership over Covid-19’s flawed science – Stephen Naylor

LEADERS are defined by the crises they face but, with notable exceptions, we are being let down at a time when leadership – both nationally and locally – is needed more than ever.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his visit to Appledore Shipyard in Devon which was bought by InfraStrata, the firm which also owns Belfast's Harland & Wolff (H&W), in a £7 million deal. Does he have the necessary leadership skills for a time of crisis?

None of those leaders signed up to be in charge at a time of a global pandemic or a national emergency, but when you put yourself forward, you know you don’t get to choose what you have to deal with.

In normal times it perhaps doesn’t matter so much whether you have the aptitude to lead not react, or whether you appoint those to your team for political expediency than an understanding of how to run something.

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But when those crises hit, as they most certainly have this year, you can be hugely exposed and we all suffer the consequences.

Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan has been praised for his handling of Covid-19.

It didn’t have to be like this. The Prime Minister could have appointed people to his Cabinet who knew how to do things, not just how to say yes.

Of course, there are the exceptions to that, but they are conspicuous by how few there are. Rishi Sunak has managed to achieve a Gordon Brown-esque grip on the Treasury, and the likes of Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s metro mayor, and Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, have been notable for their ability to ensure that the voice of their communities is heard.

The lack of leadership means we continue to be buffeted by events rather than being on top of them. Coronavirus was a horrible virus and it killed far too many people. But it was on January 29 when the first people fell ill with coronavirus in the UK, right here in Yorkshire. We are now seven months on, and we know an awful lot more about the virus and, crucially, how to treat it.

As Tom Lees wrote on these pages last week, the science and the data does not back up the approach being taken by our leaders locally and nationally. The focus on cases is wrong in a world where we are surrounded by germs and bugs every day – we don’t obsess over how many people have got a cold. What we should be focusing on is the impact those cases are having and that story is much more positive.

Andy Burnham is the metro mayor of Greater Manchester - he's also a former Cabinet minister.

There are 80 patients in hospital who have Covid-19 across the whole of Yorkshire and the North East – down a third in one week and from 2,567 at the peak. Similarly, while every death is one too many, these are also becoming increasingly rare. The last day when deaths went into the double figures across Yorkshire was June 24. The daily total here is now regularly zero.

I understand those who fear that cases will ultimately equal people in hospital. And it’s right we are careful. But there is absolutely no evidence from the past few months that it is happening. Biology is strange, viruses change, we become better at coping with them – both inside our bodies and through healthcare.

It’s time to try and return to some normality – and our leaders need to encourage that. We need our schools to reopen so children, who have sacrificed so much during this crisis, get back to education and vulnerable children return to the sanctuary and care that their classroom all too often provides.

We need our economy to get back up and running, with customers having the confidence to go out and spend and businesses having the stability to employ and thrive. We need our NHS to get back to diagnosing and treating other diseases which have alarmingly fallen by the wayside in recent months.

In the last week, around 50 people died with a coronavirus diagnosis in the UK, while over 3,000 died from cancer, 3,000 from heart disease and 10,000 from dementia. The comparison is not to seek to belittle coronavirus, but context is key.

Of course we need to be alert should coronavirus have a resurgence, but my fear is that through their lack of leadership and trust, those of us who do follow the rules at a time when they simply don’t seem to be needed are now far less likely to follow them in the future. And that is a dangerous position to be in.

In business, in politics, in life, we need leaders who put themselves forward and make a difference. I have respect for anyone who does that – it’s not easy. But I also have respect for those who perhaps realise that while they may want to lead, they are simply not cut out for it. Not everyone can be.

We don’t mind if leaders make the wrong decisions from time to time or if they make U-turns so those errors are righted, but we do mind if they are out of their depth – particularly at one of those generation-defining moments when our lives and livelihoods depend on the decisions they make.

Stephen Naylor is director of Brighouse-based Waverley – a political consultancy and communications specialists.

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