The benefit of having a lockdown announced some days in advance is the ability to savour what is about to be lost. People have been able to visit friends and family, not knowing when it will be legal to meet again. Parishioners have attended church, and youth groups have been allowed to convene one last time.
Boris Johnson has said that this latest lockdown will last only four weeks, and there is no doubt that he means it. But he also meant it when he said, barely a fortnight ago, that such a move would be a ‘disaster’ given the damage it would inflict on mental health, the economy and society.
If the pandemic had suddenly taken a dangerous new turn, if infection rates had started to surge, then his U-turn would make more sense. But the growth rate of the virus — the R number that we hear so much about — has been falling for weeks. If the new Tier 3 restrictions were failing in cities such as Liverpool, we would see the need for the new regime. But by the time MPs voted for lockdown, new infections in the city had almost halved. In Nottingham, also in Tier 3, they were only two-fifths of last month’s peak. The official daily data showed growth in those testing positive slowing to almost zero.
Even at his press conference on Saturday evening, the Prime Minister struggled to explain what had changed since he declared himself against lockdown. We were shown models of what might happen. The strange thing was that the graphs — the most striking one showing 4,000 deaths a day — had been presented to him weeks earlier, long before he was so forcefully rejecting Keir Starmer’s ‘circuit breaker’ proposal on the grounds that it would cause more harm than good. So the trajectory of the pandemic had not changed. He had just changed his mind — or had it changed for him.
Johnson now stands open to an easy charge by the Labour party: that he prevaricated until it was too late, resulting in a lockdown harsher and longer than would have been necessary had he moved earlier. To those in his party who have argued that lockdown is a blunt instrument which is doing the country more harm than good, he has panicked just at the moment his previous policy of regional lockdowns seemed to start bearing fruit.
The claim that 4,000 people a day could be dying of Covid-19 by next month — presented to a television audience of 15 million on Saturday night — may well come back to haunt him. It looks suspiciously like a Tony Blair-style piece of propaganda, leaked to the BBC so it led news bulletins before the Downing Street briefing. It later emerged that the authors of this estimate had rescinded it, and replaced it with a far lower figure — one that, needless to say, was not shared by No. 10.
We have still not been shown the studies used to back up the Prime Minister’s sudden claim that the NHS would be overwhelmed within weeks. He tells us that things are worse than his ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ but this scenario has never been officially released. Even now, the closest we can get is a leaked version, dated 30 July, published on TheSpectator’s website.
It is quite possible that the recent levelling off in Covid cases is an anomaly and that the virus is about to resume the exponential growth that we keep being told about. In other words, there could be a clear and logical case for the lockdown imposed upon England. But that case has not been made: instead we are given charts depicting unexplained hypotheticals. This is the basis on which so many millions are being deprived of their civil liberties. The policy might be the right one, but the execution has been a disgraceful shambles.
People are quite rightly asking: why are children no longer allowed to play grassroots sport? Where is the scientific justification for that? The retail industry has spent considerable sums installing one-way systems, Perspex screens and other means to make their premises ‘Covid secure’. Now they have had the rug pulled from under them, and without any evidence that Covid is being widely spread in shops. Why are tennis courts and golf courses being forced to close, not least while the government is encouraging us to take outdoor exercise?
The tragedy is that Johnson so very nearly showed leadership in overruling Sage, which has been pushing for a second lockdown for weeks. While we will not know until more figures come in, his original chosen strategy could have been successful. Instead, he has once again been left looking like a victim of events.
It is possible for him to recover from this self-inflicted blow. If, by the end of the year, we have a satisfactory trade deal with the EU and businesses are allowed the breathing space needed to rebuild confidence, things will feel very different. No one could envy the Prime Minister the decisions he has had to make in the past few days. But as this month goes on, and the data settles, he should keep himself open to the idea that his original regional strategy was right all along. And stand ready to revert to it.
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