WHATEVER your views of the rights and wrongs of lockdowns, the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been a national disaster.
The damage to the economy, to the health and wealth of the nation, and to trust in our institutions will be long-term and possibly irreparable.
People will be arguing for years about whether the Johnson government could have managed things differently, but the Prime Minister will never escape the fact that things went pear-shaped on his watch, and his legacy will always be tarnished by questions of whether the real disaster was the response to the pandemic rather than the virus itself.
Largely unnoticed, a couple of weeks ago, we narrowly avoided another crisis, which, if not of the Prime Minister’s making, was at least the result of policy measures he supports and wants to extend. With wind speeds very low, the much-vaunted fleet of offshore wind turbines was dismally failing to pull the skin off the proverbial rice pudding, generating only a tiny fraction of its theoretical capacity.
In the middle of the week, it looked as though the country was in danger of being plunged into blackouts, and grid managers put out repeated requests for somebody – anybody! – to step into the breach, either by switching on mothballed plant or by reducing demand.
Customers of one electricity company were invited to switch appliances off during the evening peak in return for free electricity another time. Desperate measures were clearly the order of the day, but they at least seem to have done the trick. With every power plant generating, including much-maligned coal-fired power stations, the country made it through the evening peak unscathed. Just.
How much longer that will be possible remains to be seen. The Government is hell-bent on eliminating anything fossil-fuelled, which means pretty much anything that can be switched on when needed. Interconnectors to Europe are not going to save us either, because low wind speeds typically affect the whole continent.
It seems clear that we will soon have no way to fill the void when the wind doesn’t blow. At that point, widespread power cuts will become the norm and Mr Johnson will have played his part in creating a second national disaster.
And unfortunately, there are signs of a third car-crash – this time one that is both economic and environmental – on the horizon. It turns out that offshore wind farm operators have been siting turbines too close to each other.
Usually the impact of so-called ‘wake effects’ is hidden, but it emerged today that one of the two wind farms sited off Wirral is having to pay the other one the best part of £2million pounds per year – six per cent of turnover – to compensate for the upwind turbines both ‘stealing’ energy from the downwind ones and causing turbulence, with knock-on effects on performance and operating costs. Future wind farms will therefore have to be much more spaced out.
This will have two effects. Firstly, developers will have to move further offshore to find enough space. This will take them into deeper waters, driving the cost of the electricity they produce – already many times the cost of power from fossil fuels and rising fast – up still further. Higher energy prices means fewer jobs, so Mr Johnson’s plans may make him the architect of a second, wholly avoidable, economic disaster.
But worse, the area of ocean that will be required for all these wind farms will be much greater. The capacity that the Committee on Climate Change says we will need to decarbonise the economy will occupy an area roughly half the size of Scotland.
We would need a wall of turbines, more than 20 miles across and more than 200 metres (656ft) high, stretching from Thanet to John O’Groats. Migratory birds are known to fly around wind farms if they can. Whether any would make it through a barrier of the kind that Prime Minister plans to build remains to be seen. In other words, a national environmental disaster could be another part of the Johnson legacy to the country.
The word from within Whitehall is that the Government is doing everything it can to look green in the run-up to the big climate conference in Glasgow at the end of next year. Mr Johnson will let nothing get in the way of his being able to strut the international stage and win the plaudits of other green-minded leaders. But to risk a series of disasters, both economic and environmental, in exchange for a few hours in the limelight seems extraordinarily foolish.
The history books will be unlikely even to record the occurrence of a climate conference like the one in Glasgow. They will, however, observe that Mr Johnson was presiding over the country as disaster struck in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic.
They might conclude that he was unlucky to be at the helm at such a time. But if presiding over one disaster might be considered unfortunate, the historians will surely conclude that presiding over a second was very careless. And what would they say if Mr Johnson delivers a third disaster or a fourth one?
I imagine that words would fail them, as they fail me.