oliticians at the peak of their political careers — and I say that in a modest way — don’t talk about their weaknesses,” says the Mayor of London, a sincere look in his dark brown eyes. “I don’t think it is a sign of weakness for me to talk about how I have struggled.”
Khan is used to stress, both in his five years as Mayor, as an MP and in his previous career as a lawyer, but the past year has been particularly punishing. “My wellbeing is linked to London’s,” he says, looking slim in a white shirt, steel grey hair grown long in lockdown. “There is a curve in relation to how I was feeling in March and April last year and how the city was doing. I was frustrated at being excluded from key decisions by the Government, not being at Cobra meetings, with PPE. But the vaccine gives me hope.”
His mother had the jab last week and Khan says “afterwards I slept well for the first time in a long time”. “It was a game changer. It has been really tough not seeing her. I am a grown adult and I am missing my mum — how to cope with that stuff and things like being told it isn’t safe to hug people isn’t in the mental health books.”
He is speaking from his office in City Hall, with two thriving pot plants and an on-brand poster behind him proclaiming that London is the centre of the world. But he spent the morning at a GP’s surgery in north London watching the vaccine be rolled out. David Lammy accompanied him, along with his 81-year-old Aunt Mayfield, who was getting the vaccine. “She was hesitant because of what she had read on social media but the good news is that because GPs are respected by black and ethnic minority communities, they reassured her and it was great,” says Khan, buoyed up by his “inspiring” visit. “Both the people waiting to be injected and staff were quite diverse and that engendered confidence.”
Khan is putting pressure on Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of vaccinations, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock to make sure London gets its fair share of the vaccine, “and that it doesn’t just go to the affluent parts of London — we are making progress but it is right that we keep putting pressure on the Government”. He thinks key workers and homeless people should be among the next groups to receive it. What about vaccines at schools so that they can reopen? “It won’t be possible to vaccinate all school staff by March so we have to make sure testing is in place and face masks are worn.” He is full of praise for Zahawi who, he says, “is working collegiately” on the vaccine roll-out, in pointed contrast to Boris Johnson, who excluded him from the early stages of pandemic planning.
Have they smoothed things over, is the Prime Minister working collegiately too? “Less so,” says Khan, sounding resigned. “I am off his Christmas card list. I sent him one but he is the first PM in a long time I didn’t get one from.”
We last spoke to Khan in May last year, when TfL was on the brink of bankruptcy and had been bailed out by the Government. Khan was feeling “mentally fragile” as the death toll mounted and the Government continued to ignore his pleas for face masks to be obligatory on public transport. Nearly a year since the start of the pandemic, what does Khan think of his initial response? “There is lots that I would have done differently. There needs to be a public inquiry. The obvious thing is that I would have locked down faster. The lesson is go in early and go decisive. Many transport workers caught Covid before lockdown in March. My concern is that we aren’t learning lessons.”
When it was announced that more than 100,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19, Khan felt “heartbroken”. “More than 13,000 Londoners have lost their lives,” he says. “A friend who is 53 lost his life two weeks ago, a friend who is 60 lost his life. It is not just numbers, it is people and what frustrates and angers me is that many of these deaths were preventable. As impatient as I am for the recovery, my frustration with the Government is that they still haven’t got the message that you can’t have a reopening without getting to grips with the virus. And constantly stopping and starting is not good for the economy either.”
It’s all very well criticising the Government, but did Khan do enough early on to fight for London’s businesses? Almost 250,000 jobs were lost in London last year. He swerves the question. “The lack of certainty is the biggest thing. What we want from the Government is announcements in advance.” The role of the Mayor has its limits, “if taking back control is going to be meaningful we need proper devolution — if we had that we could support businesses better.”
Khan talks a strong game about London’s recovery, informed by Clement Attlee’s rebuilding after the Second World War. He has been reading Citizen Clem, John Bew’s biography of the former prime minister. “In the midst of the war, leaders had the foresight and vision to plan for recovery. Now there is no plan from the Government so we have to do it ourselves and lobby the Government.”
How does he plan to support businesses? “I hope the Chancellor spends more time listening to businesses than focussing on his brand. In the absence of other support for the sector, Eat Out to Help Out was a godsend. Did it lead to complacency about social distancing and mingling when it shouldn’t have happened? Probably, yeah. What the Chancellor should be focussing on how is how to help hibernating businesses recover, how to avoid redundancies.”
“Our best years are ahead of us,” he says. “We can’t take it for granted — just like how Covid has been the biggest challenge since World War Two, we must fight to have the best recovery like they did then. It must be jobs, jobs, jobs. We have to avoid mass unemployment.”
He is calling for the Government to launch the largest advertising campaign in history to re-attract domestic and then international visitors, once it has “got a grip” on the pandemic. The delayed European 2020 football championships in the summer could also attract domestic tourists back to London and he is looking forward to cheering on England.
Another matter for an inquiry is that “a lot of these decisions about the pandemic were made by men”. “The decision was taken to open pubs and barbers when we know that had there been more women around the table, there would have been decisions about what affects women, like whether teachers should come back.” The Government poster released last week to encourage people to stay home, with pictures of women doing domestic tasks like Fifties housewives, shows the extent of the gender disparity at the top. “What I find so astounding is that no one spotted it before it was published,” says Khan.
Khan appears to have got some pep back in his step. He now “knows the things that continue to give me resilience”. “Exercise is important, the person who fills in my diary factors in a jog or walking the dog. You have to plan for leisure so that when you are busy work doesn’t take over.”
Young people’s mental health is also a concern. “My daughters are back from university and they can’t see their mates. The joy of university is the experience — being up all night with your mates, going clubbing, the buzz you get from a lecture theatre. It is heartbreaking to see my children missing out on that and it is tough for them.” His daughters, aged 19 and 21, try to keep their father’s job a secret. “None of my youngest’s friends know, my eldest’s mates found out because I dropped her off at university. I think it is good — they shouldn’t be Sadiq Khan’s daughters, they should be who they are.”
In three months time, Khan will face the mayoral election, provided it goes ahead. “I intend to go on as long as Londoners give me the vote,” he says. Would he like to follow his predecessor as mayor and become prime minister? “Being in Cabinet is not all that,” he says with arched eyebrows.
His team have been speaking to the Democrats in Washington D.C. about how to win elections in a pandemic. Khan is looking forward to eventually being able to meet Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: “Biden’s election is the perfect antidote to the rise of populism and gives us all hope.”
In the run-up to the election, Khan will be scrutinised on London’s transport. As well as the funding crisis at TfL, the roads are currently chaotic, as new segregated cycle paths and traffic control measures are put in place that in some areas are only serving to concentrate traffic on certain roads rather than reduce it. “We don’t want to replace one health emergency, Covid, with another, low quality air,” says Khan unapologetically. “These new cycle paths are temporary, which means they are cheaper and if they aren’t working we can change them. Some councils had deadlines so had to put them in place but nothing will be permanent without consultation.”
He is proud to have kept free travel for schoolchildren and freedom pass recipients, even if it has meant a 9.5 per cent council tax increase. “I don’t apologise for believing that public transport should be affordable for everyone. If you are a parent of three children who don’t live within walking distance of school, as many people in London don’t, you can’t be paying £45 a week for them to get to school. My choice to keep free travel was to increase the congestion charge to seven days a week, which is wrong, or use a regressive tax system, council tax, to fill that hole. I am being forced down that route.”
He has bought himself an electric Brompton bike to get around on. The other bright event on the horizon is a belated 50th birthday party, where he plans a playlist of centrist dad classics, including Dua Lipa. “I was supposed to turn 50 in October but I don’t think you can have a birthday during a pandemic,” he smiles, pleased at this logic. “So it has been delayed. And when lockdown is lifted I will be one of those embarrassing middle-aged men going clubbing.”
— to www.standard.co.uk