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LONDON — The COVID-19 warning lights are “flashing” like the “dashboard warnings in a passenger jet,” Boris Johnson warned the U.K. on Monday — but questions are already being asked about whether he’s making the right emergency maneuvers.
Amid soaring infection rates and rising hospital admissions — particularly in the north of England — the prime minister announced a new three-tier COVID alert system for England and confirmed that the city of Liverpool and the surrounding region will be the first area required to impose the strictest new lockdown measures, including the closure of pubs and bars from Wednesday.
But the announcement came amid an acrimonious — and politically dangerous — row with local and regional leaders in the north who feel Johnson’s government left it too late to consult with them about the plans, while failing to offer sufficient financial support to the thousands of businesses that will have to shut their doors under the new restrictions.
What’s more, Johnson’s own advisers said the new measures don’t go far enough.
Speaking alongside the prime minister at a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said he was “not confident” that the “baseline” restrictions required by government in areas listed in the “very high” alert category would be enough to “get on top” of the virus. Local authority leaders have been empowered to add additional measures (as the Liverpool city region has done) and Whitty’s comment appeared to be an instruction to do more than the government was asking.
Further evidence that the government’s scientists want the government to go further emerged late Monday, as the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published documents showing it had concluded three weeks ago that “not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” and cataloging several measures — including a temporary “circuit breaker” national lockdown — beyond the measures the government outlined this week.
The documents also cast doubt on the impact the government’s beleaguered NHS Test and Trace system is having on infection rates.
For Johnson, who told MPs earlier Monday that the U.K. was now facing “the stark reality” of a COVID second wave that would test the country’s “mettle,” the necessity to bring in even limited tougher measures represents an admission that some of his more optimistic prognoses for the course of the pandemic will not come good.
The leader, who as recently as July hinted that there could be a “significant return to normality” by Christmas, must now preside over a second wave that won’t just test his mettle, but also confidence in his government in the worst-hit regions of the country.
Caught in the middle
The U.K. recorded another 13,972 cases on Monday and there are now more people in hospital in England with COVID-19 than before the national lockdown imposed during the first wave in March.
Politically, Johnson finds himself caught between scientists and an opposition Labour Party who urge him to go hard and fast to suppress the virus wherever it flares up, and many members of his own party who want the government to ditch statist impositions on businesses and people’s lives and embrace something like the approach laid out in last week’s so-called “Great Barrington declaration.”
One of those persuaded by that approach is former Brexit minister Steve Baker, an influential figure on the right of the party. To make his point to Johnson on Monday, he asked the prime minister when he planned to vaccinate vulnerable people against COVID-19. Johnson replied that he — like everyone else in the world – was unable to give a date and that an eventual vaccine could not be “taken for granted.” This was precisely what Baker wanted to hear, and he promptly tweeted that “suppression until vaccination is not viable much longer” and called for a “strategic plan B.”
Another Tory MP, Philip Davies, asked Johnson why, instead of “a constant blizzard of arbitrary rules which will only serve to collapse the economy and destroy businesses and jobs,” the government couldn’t simply trust the people to act responsibly. “Believing that individuals make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities than the state can make for them, is surely at the heart of what it means to be a Conservative?” he said.
Yet in the pursuit of a more laissez-faire approach, elements of the Tory party are at odds with the British public, who still tend to strongly favor tough restrictions to bring down infection rates. A poll by YouGov out Monday night found 40 percent of Brits said the new measures do not go far enough while 15 percent said they go too far and 19 percent thought the balance was right. Plus, 64 percent said they did not think the government has a clear plan on how to tackle the coronavirus.
Johnson — though he has given hints of being tempted by a more libertarian approach — is not convinced.
He said any plan that entailed allowing the young to go about their lives as normal, while shielding the elderly and vulnerable was impossible. “The virus would then spread with such velocity in the general population that there would be no way of stopping it from spreading among the elderly,” he said.
Nevertheless, Labour leader Keir Starmer has clearly spotted the fault-line in Johnson’s own party and is determined to exploit it.
Johnson’s own personal approval ratings have slipped considerably since the start of the pandemic and he has a particular interest in retaining the trust of communities in the north of England.
“I know that there will be some on his side who will oppose further restrictions,” Starmer told Johnson in the Commons. “[But] the worst thing the prime minister could do is not act quickly and decisively enough, or to keep coming back to this House every couple of weeks with a new plan that doesn’t work and isn’t up to the scale of the task. We need to break that cycle, finally get on top of the virus, rebuild public confidence.”
The question of public confidence will weight heavy on Johnson. His own personal approval ratings have slipped considerably since the start of the pandemic and he has a particular interest in retaining the trust of communities in the north of England, many of which bucked electoral trends to back his Conservative party at last year’s election.
The day after that election, Johnson said he recognized that many former Labour supporters had only “lent” him their vote. Now many of them find themselves in areas of the country with the highest infection rates and under the toughest restrictions.
In this light, the observation on Monday from England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam that the reason the epidemic is growing fastest in the north was “almost certainly” linked to the fact that disease levels there “never dropped as far … as they did in the south” during the summer, has the potential to become politically toxic for Johnson.
The mayor of the Greater Manchester city region, Labour’s Andy Burnham, has already made similar arguments and has accused the government of a London-centric approach to its COVID-19 planning.
Now, Burnham and other local and regional leaders in the north (including some Conservative ones) have their sights set on the generosity of the government’s support for communities under the strictest lockdowns. They seek to make this the yard-stick by which Johnson’s pledge to “level up” the country, in order to pump government resources into neglected parts of the country, will be measured. A package outlined by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week — which will see employees of businesses forced to close paid two-thirds of their salary — has been deemed insufficient by local leaders in the north.
“Any restrictions will lead to loss of trade for businesses and challenges for councils,” Burnham said on Monday. “The prime minister must give all areas under restrictions full financial support.
“Anything less will see them levelled down.”
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