How to Kill with a Handshake: My Favorite Boris Johnson Story

Now that Boris Johnson is leaving office it’s time to think back and find our favorite stories from his premiership. Here’s mine. What’s yours?

Bent Flyvbjerg
4 min readSep 4, 2022


I’m Danish but have worked in Britain for the past 14 years. I was there when Covid-19 hit the country in early 2020. I decided to stay, but resolved to take my cues on how to deal with the pandemic from Denmark.*

Smart move, if you ask me.

On March 12, 2020, the Danish government decided to lock down Denmark and send employees and students home to self-isolate. The very same day, to my horror, I received the following email from my employer, the University of Oxford, inviting me for coffee and cakes the next day:

“To thank all staff and faculty for their support in this time of uncertainty, there will be free coffee and cakes in the Common Rooms throughout tomorrow morning, Friday 13 March.”

I read the email as an invitation to come and get infected. So, being Danish, I protested. But protest doesn’t really work in Britain. “Keep calm and carry on” is the preferred approach, including for the pandemic at this stage.

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, didn’t help. He was on national TV explaining, over and over, that lockdowns and telling people what to do would not sit well with the British liberal tradition. Brits should be trusted to use common sense, which for the prime minister himself meant — also documented on TV — continuing to make physical visits and shake hands well into the pandemic.

At a Downing Street press conference he explained his approach, which can only be described as tragically misguided, not only in retrospect, but at the time:

“I can tell you that I’m shaking hands continuously … I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”

So after Denmark and other countries had locked down, Britain was still open and its prime minister calmly carried on shaking hands, placing himself and others at risk, even after people…



Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor at University of Oxford and IT University of Copenhagen. Writes about project management.