Oh dear. Boris Johnson’s much trailed address to the nation this evening has merely deepened the impression that this is a prime minister who is not in control of events at all.
In summary, he was saying there will be no substantive change to the lockdown, other than the tweak of permitting more outside activity, at least until June when perhaps some schools may open and July when perhaps some of the hospitality industry and other public places may open too.
As I have previously observed, such caution is at present unavoidable. Britain’s current rate of new Covid-19 cases is still far too high for restrictions to be eased to any great extent. And at least it offers some relief that Johnson has resisted the enormous pressure from “economy-firsters” to exit the lockdown now.
But as I wrote here, it’s not enough just to hold the line. Many – including myself – have cut the prime minister a great deal of slack in view of the dreadful choices he is being forced to make between protecting the economy and saving lives, and over a virus which is barely understood and on which scientific advice is divided. But it’s not just that many are understandably horrified about the effects upon the economy. People are becoming exasperated by the muted and mixed messaging which has been made even worse this evening.
The new slogan, “Stay Alert”, is utterly meaningless. “Stay at home” was at least clear. It told people what they needed to do in order to protect life and health. But what on earth does “Stay Alert” mean they should actually do? It doesn’t tell them. It sends out instead the dangerous message that isolating themselves as much as possible is no longer an imperative.
What is the point of voicing yet another pious aspiration to have “a world-beating system for testing potential victims, and for tracing their contacts” without providing any evidence that it is finally being put in place?
What is the difference supposed to be between the previous instruction about work: “We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must”, and the new instruction: “So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home”?
This address was a wasted opportunity. Instead of pious platitudes, the prime minster should have levelled with the public. He should have said the UK’s current high death rate and the consequent slow exit from lockdown was the result of mistakes his government had made; that there was no path through this without awful choices and a lot of pain; that life would not come back to anything approaching normal for many months yet; that the only way of beating this was through a further period of national self-discipline; and that he would now regularly lay before the public, with maximum transparency, the discussions and arguments within government about the awful dilemma the country was facing, along with both the scientific opinions and the moral reasoning behind the decisions they were taking.
In other words, he needs to take the public with him by making them, in effect, partners in this great and desperate undertaking.
The public have so far shown remarkable understanding of what’s at stake and a corresponding willingness to tolerate draconian restrictions they can see are necessary to tackle this pandemic. But they cannot be expected to maintain such self-discipline and collective sense of purpose if they conclude they are being led by incompetents who don’t know what they are doing.
People can see for themselves that the lockdown was imposed too late and too half-heartedly. The police were undermined in their attempts to enforce it by vague and confusing messaging. Not only failing to stop flights from virus hotspots but letting passengers wander through Heathrow without even any questions being asked about their health has been inexplicable. The failure to deliver appropriate levels of protection for health and care workers has been grotesquely irresponsible. The absence of testing so that the number of people who have been infected is still unknown has been negligent in the extreme. The dumping of patients carrying the virus into care homes which have consequently suffered appalling death rates has been sickening and inexcusable.
To maintain public confidence, Boris Johnson needs to deliver a clear and unequivocal message about what the public is expected to do. He needs to explain how government thinking has been evolving and the reasoning behind the decisions it has taken. He needs to show leadership; and leadership in this crisis entails absolute clarity and a ruthless focus on the moral imperative to save lives. And he should have laid it all out first before parliament, and only then addressed the nation.
Instead, the country has been fobbed off this evening with bromides punctuated by gibberish. Bravo no more, Boris.