Arianne Shahvisi

Had the lockdown in the UK been introduced a week earlier, the death toll from Covid-19 would have been half or even a quarter of what it is now, scientists have said. That means between 20,000 and 30,000 lives could have been saved. It’s a devastating counterfactual. Instead, the UK has the highest death count in Europe. In an (other) alternative reality, the prime minister would by now have admitted to making catastrophic errors in his handling of the pandemic, and apologised.

According to a survey carried out in 2011, the average Briton says sorry eight times a day. It is arguably one of the most versatile words in British English, deployed for a range of purposes, some contradictory to its official meaning. ‘Sorry’ is used just as often to precede an utterance designed to make someone else feel bad as it is to express genuine contrition. Like the words ‘polite notice’, it performs its claim rather than realising it. Apologies can be disingenuous, strategic or emotionally manipulative. Yet most of us demand them as a reparative minimum when we are wronged.

‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.

Getting Johnson to apologise for his long list of actual misdemeanours is a different matter. His most notable blunders have been ruinous for others, yet have had little impact on his standing as a public figure. In 2017, he mistakenly claimed that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran at the time of her imprisonment (she was visiting family), remarks that strengthened her jailers’ case against her. A year later, he wrote that women wearing ‘the burka’ (he meant niqab) looked like ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. There was a 375 per cent surge in Islamophobic incidents the following week, with 42 per cent of abusers making reference to his comments.

After facing serious criticism, he eventually apologised in the House of Commons for the first incident: ‘I apologise for the distress, the suffering that has been caused by the impression that I gave that the government believed, that I believed, that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran in a professional capacity.’ In reference to the second case, he said on ITV:

I’ve already said sorry for any offence I have caused and I’ll say it again, but let me be very clear that I don’t set out to cause offence in what I’ve written … It’s always worth looking at the whole article and what I’m really intending to say, because actually it’s quite the opposite … You just need to go back and look at the context.

Similarly, when called on to apologise for the searingly racist and homophobic remarks made in his column at the Daily Telegraph, he said on Sky News: ‘I do feel very sad that people have been so offended by these words and I’m sorry that I’ve caused this offence.’

These formulations are better understood as ‘fauxpologies’. They co-opt the language and tone of an authentic apology, and share the demand for forgiveness, but evade responsibility for wrongdoing. One notable sub-variety often employed by Johnson is the back-handed apology – ‘I’m sorry if anyone took offence’ or ‘I’m sorry if you misunderstood me to mean …’ – which boomerangs the fault back to those who too easily take offence, or are prone to misinterpret things.

Another common species of fauxpology centres on an account of why the transgression was no such thing. Dominic Cummings’s violation of the lockdown guidelines, which has since been shown to have seriously undermined public compliance, led to him being granted an hour of primetime television to set out his apology. He gave a pathologically detailed account of why his failure to abide by rules designed to protect lives should instead be understood as evidence of his exemplary parenting.

If and when Johnson feels sufficiently pressured to apologise for the government’s handling of the pandemic, it’s likely he’ll choose the form of fauxpology most popular with politicians, and concede that ‘mistakes were made’ (Vice-President George H.W. Bush said it of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986; President George W. Bush said it of the Iraq invasion in 2004). This places the blame with the mistakes themselves, absolving decision-makers in the same way as ‘accidents will happen.’ Either that or he’ll sidestep the issue by saying that an apology is not enough, or not appropriate, or nothing can bring back those who have died. For now, Johnson has offered the opposite of an apology: he’s ‘very proud’ of the government’s response to the pandemic, as if he expects our gratitude.

As Black Lives Matter protests continue, and statues of slave traders are felled, it’s no longer possible to ignore the injustices that are still waiting for apologies, and the ongoing cost of silence. Behavioural scientists have shown that the most important components of an effective apology are acknowledging responsibility and offering reparation. The problem with apologies isn’t that they’re empty, it’s that they’re morally exposing and loaded with promises of justice. That’s why politicians are so reluctant to give them.


  • 23 June 2020 at 1:35am
    Graucho says:
    Priti Patel is a dab hand at this game. Remember her non-apology over PPE? "I'm sorry if people feel that there have been failings".

  • 24 June 2020 at 9:12am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Gosh how wonderful 20:20 hindsight is! I think you’ll find that the government tried to follow the advice of health experts as to when a lockdown should be implemented. That expert advice was sketchy and often confused; it remains so; even now health professionals differ in their advice on a range of measures including social-distancing limits, the effectiveness of face masks and the perils of lifting lockdown altogether. That’s hardly surprising: this pandemic is (sorry) unprecedented.

    • 24 June 2020 at 12:30pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Of course, this is the first pandemic ever. When have we ever had a pandemic before ?

      You say the "expert advice" offered to BoJo and his merry band was "sketchy" and "confused". But we also know that many other countries have been able to formulate far more effective (in terms of death rates) policies and responses based on advice offered by **their experts**.

      Which is to say that IF it is being claimed that British experts were somehow not as competent as their counterparts in, say Germany, does that absolve BoJo ? After all, isn't BoJo is finally responsible for the team of British experts chosen to offer advice ?

    • 24 June 2020 at 1:34pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      We taxpayers do not fund our politicians to come up with slogans or to tickle the clitoris of the Tory party at conference. We pay them to take decisions and hopefully get them right. When, as in this case, they are spectacularly and fataly wrong, the least we unhappy customers deserve is an unqualified mia culpa.
      As for hindsight, just how bad this was going to be was obvious to anyone paying attention to what was happening in Lombardi. Sensing the little Englander mentality of this lot, I would not be surprised if a patronising, condescending attitude to Italian administration had something to do with not taking it seriously. Similarly one of the first and deadliest outbreaks in eastern France took place in a care home. Again no one was paying attention. Whoever was responsible for sending patients to care homes without testing should be fired.
      Back in March I posted this on the blog regarding the situation in the U.S. when Trump was still trivialising the outbreak ...
      8 March 2020 at 12:31am
      Graucho says: @
      As a footnote to preparedness for the corona outbreak, at time of writing the death rate in the U.S. at 6% is an outlier way above any other country. One suspects that the discrepancy lies in the denominator, not the numerator. Namely, that it is so expensive to seek medical help in the U.S. that many with symptoms are just not revealing themselves. Whether an epidemic dies out or baloons is contingent on the pool of infected persons at large. It takes a hurt to learn. If the U.S. ends up with the worst outbreak of any country it might at least demonstrate the folly of leaving medical care to the free market.
      The facts were there for anyone to see. The three leaders who have performed abysmally in this pandemic are Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro. The common thread is that they are populists. Populist like making popular decisions, the clue is in the title as they say. When caught between a rock and a hard place, as they were here, they will try to pretend that the problem doesn't exist. The fact that the U.S., U.K. and Brazil between them account for nearly half the fatalities from this virus speaks for itself.

    • 24 June 2020 at 2:44pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ CarpeDiem
      I guess the UK might simply have adopted the methods tried in other countries. How would you feel if we had followed the example of, say, Sweden?

    • 24 June 2020 at 2:47pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Graucho
      ".... it might at least demonstrate the folly of leaving medical care to the free market........."

      This has been demonstrated before ( See , for instance ).

      Maybe the problem is, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it", as Upton Sinclair put it.

    • 24 June 2020 at 2:53pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Is that another instance of British Exceptionalism ? Follow the outlier rather than what most other developed countries were doing ?

      To their credit, the Swedes are being more honest in owning up to their mistakes. See .

  • 24 June 2020 at 2:19pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Dear Graucho
    I marvel at your wisdom and prescience. As the likely severity of this pandemic was so “obvious” to you can you describe the precautions you yourself took in the absence of any government guidance. Did you self-isolate before 23 Match? Did you e-mail colleagues urging them to work from home? Perhaps you got ahead of the queue and bought yourself a face mask before the hordes descended? What are your recommendations for the path ahead?

    • 24 June 2020 at 3:15pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Precautions - regular hand washing, not hand shaking unlike the PM. I already have a face mask from a trip to China which I use. I am retired and have no colleagues to email. One thing about this virus, which is now clear with hindsight, is the extent of asymptomatic transmission and the long term effects some victims suffer even if they survive. For that reason I am now doubly cautious, and always wear disposable gloves as well as my mask when out and about. Given where we are with no vaccine, test, trace and isolate is the only way forwards. I would echo the call from several quarters that HMG appoint a covid Tsar with authority over all departments until this thing has run its course. Anyway the point of my piece is that I am not paid to be prescient, but our politicians are.

  • 25 June 2020 at 3:13pm
    lfraley says:
    Graucho and Marmaduke are running neck and neck on this one. Fauxpologies are now expected from them for ignoring the columnist. Boomer that I am, I'm still trying to stop myself from saying things like "Young Turk" or "That's white of you". Sorry doesn't cut it. Thank you Ms Shahvisi for reminding us of the consequences of our thoughtlessness. PS Marmaduke wins because after "tickling the clitoris" I couldn't process Graucho's arguments.

Read more