By Paul Waugh
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War, what is it good for?
“I can’t remember anything like this in peacetime,” said Boris Johnson. “We are in a health war,” said Emmanuel Macron. Let’s stockpile guns and ammo, said American consumers (I’m not making this up, some really are).
Although each country has its own response to the Covid-19 threat, most of them are treating it as a mortal enemy. Today, after nearly two weeks of restraint, the prime minister finally joined what looks like a global military effort with a rapid deployment of new weapons to target the virus. Or at least, it seemed he did.
In advising everyone to avoid non-essential travel and social contact and warning the most vulnerable over-70s to prepare for three months of home quarantine, the PM’s words felt like a serious medical mobilisation. The only major mitigating measure not announced was the closure of schools, and that remains in reserve.
We should be perhaps relieved that Johnson doesn’t share the assumption among some Americans that coronavirus can somehow be killed by actual bullets. But it was clear from the Downing Street announcement that there remain other, more important differences between his approach and that of other countries like France, Italy and the US.
Macron made plain that anyone who disobeyed his own edicts would face the might of the state. “Every infraction of these rules will be punished,” the president warned. When asked if he would introduce criminal sanctions, Johnson instead joked about UK ministers already having the power to ban handshaking. “We are a mature and grown-up and liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice that is given to them,” the PM added.
That reluctance to order a draconian crackdown, while clearly wanting the effects of one, was what hung over the entire press conference. We know Johnson famously wanted to have his cake and eat it on Brexit. On coronavirus, he said he wanted ‘drastic action’, yet went out of his way to avoid looking like he was the one imposing it.
With ‘mass gatherings’, the government has been happy to let big players like the football leagues (and today the Grand National) take the lead. Similarly, he today told the public not to go to pubs or restaurants, but didn’t take the crucial step of actually ordering their owners to close down (something many of them say would allow them to claim insurance and help save their businesses).
The ambivalence may be cleared up in coming days, but today it only added to the fog of war that hung around No.10’s messaging. There was a startling vagueness about key issues, not least on exactly how long the ban (sorry, advice) on non-essential travel and social contact would last. When I pressed the chief medical officer on this, he replied it would be for “a significant period of time”. For many people hoping to plan their lives, that will sound worryingly indefinite.
There was a real lack of clarity too about what was being announced overall. It took Matt Hancock an hour later to explain to MPs that fit over-70s were not part of the 12-week quarantine that will start this weekend (that’s just for older people with key underlying health conditions). But even he struggled to explain that healthy over-70s were ‘particularly’ advised to adhere to the social-distancing recommended by the PM.
Similarly, the advice for those relatives of the elderly was far from clear in the press conference (it now states “they should not visit you during this time, unless they are providing essential care for you”). Most worrying of all for many younger adults, the advice for pregnant women suddenly changed with no notice whatsoever. And again, at first some thought they had been told to join the 12-week quarantine. It seems the advice is not based on any specific threat to pregnant women, other than they are generally prone to infection.
There were big gaps today on what protective clothing NHS staff would get, on whether social care staff would be treated like NHS workers. But the biggest hole actually came in Johnson’s remarks about the economic downturn we are now all facing. He sounded blithe and tone deaf about the need to financially support the low-paid who will be forced to stay at home. The chancellor tonight offered nothing new beyond the Budget measures already announced.
Johnson’s glib assertion that there’s “absolutely no reason why economies worldwide should not come roaring back” felt totally misplaced given that he had just announced moves that could lead many firms to go under. Having grasped the health policy consequences of the Imperial College findings today (250,000 UK deaths loom if action isn’t tough enough) it was as if his brain was still scrambling to catch up with the economic implications too.
Instead of asking car manufacturers (who are humouring him so far) to help manufacture ventilators that may or may not pass stringent medical requirements, many firms big and small will want to know where the real ‘drastic action’ is on the economy. And only Johnson, not they, can pull those levers. Trotting out Kitchener-style ‘Your Country Needs You’ messages only work if government is doing its own bit in return.
As for the PM, he likes to see himself as the Winston Churchill of our time. But maybe he’s more French than he realises. It was Napoleon who was alleged to have said “I would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good”. It’s the PM’s good fortune that coronavirus hit the UK two months after his election rather than before it. One suspects that other political leaders will be swept aside over the coming year as their populations judge them on how they reacted to this global threat.
Quote Of The Day
“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”
Boris Johnson reveals his newest advice to the general public
Monday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson unveiled new advice for the public on coronavirus. It’s unclear if Jeremy Corbyn (71 this year) will heed the advice for all over-70s to avoid non-essential travel.
The Commons and Lords Speakers announced that all visitor access to parliament would cease during the crisis. The public galleries in the Lords and Commons will be closed.
Labour’s Kate Osborne became the second MP to reveal she had tested positive for coronavirus.
The Opposition will “nod through” the Budget this week, as MPs focus instead on a vote on emergency powers for coronavirus.
The BBC is to delay TV licence fee changes for the over-75s. Free licences for to 3.7 million people had been due to be scrapped on 1 June, but that has been put back to 1 August.
What I’m Reading
Best Graphics Ever On Squashing The Coronavirus Peak – Washington Post
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