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22 September 2020

Boris Johnson’s statement reveals the inherent contradiction in the government’s strategy

The UK’s health strategy and economic strategy could come from two entirely different administrations.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson will address the nation this evening to unveil a modest set of rule changes for England, most notably a 10pm curfew for pubs, as the UK faces a second wave of coronavirus.

The Prime Minister’s planned announcement goes nowhere near as far as what has been floated in recent days. He was initially expected to use this speech to announce a two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown in England, closing restaurants and leisure facilities but leaving schools open to quash the virus, as reportedly urged by Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Matt Hancock. Instead, the PM has sided with Rishi Sunak and others in his cabinet who urged him to focus on limiting new restrictions to those that would be the least economically damaging.

Each of the people mentioned above has their own role to perform and a brief to prioritise and advocate for: health for the Health Secretary and chief scientific and medical officers, and the long-term impact on the economy for the Chancellor. It is only the Prime Minister who is in a position to look at these different concerns in the round and to make them cohere as one policy.

​​​As Stephen wrote yesterday, this is certainly not the case at the moment, with the health strategy and economic strategy seeming like they could be coming from two entirely different administrations. This isn’t just the case in terms of a lack of economic support to underpin the health advice, but the ways in which the two seem fundamentally unaware of each other. For months it has produced the strange doublethink where it is against the guidance to sit indoors less than a metre apart from someone outside your household without a mask on, unless, of course, you are doing so inside a restaurant or pub, in which case, not only is that permissible but you’re a true patriot.  

In a situation where the government implicitly hoped that the more vulnerable would prioritise their health and the less vulnerable would stimulate the economy, this was passable for a time. But it is not a viable long-term strategy to release a long and contradictory set of guidance, economic stimuli and messages and hope that the public will pick and choose which ones to follow according to their own circumstances and needs. 

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The statement today from Prime Minister is perhaps best understood as the product of the disciplining effect of the second wave. Obviously contradictory messages, such as urging people who can work from home to go into the office, have been quietly ditched, the health message is being amplified, and hospitality environments that fly in the face of Covid-19 guidance are being brought into line. After months of mixed messages, this isn’t so much about tightening restrictions, as a last-ditch effort to see if a clear prioritisation of the health message can work on its own.

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