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21 July 2021

The government relies on Boris Johnson’s infectious optimism – but good cheer alone cannot sustain it

The Prime Minister’s preference for warm reassurance may work in lockdown, but it is less effective out of it.

By Stephen Bush

Despite what you might have read, heard or seen, Boris Johnson’s approach to tackling Covid-19 has been remarkably consistent: his objective is to keep society as open as the National Health Service will allow. When pressure on the health service eases, so too must restrictions. When healthcare capacity starts to collapse, down come the shutters again.

But having a single aim isn’t the same as having a consistent strategy. Like Johnson’s own instincts, the government has veered in many different directions. Matt Hancock, the Prime Minister’s first health secretary, wanted to keep the country as locked down as possible until science beat back the disease. His allies argue his approach was validated by the emergence of vaccines, though his opponents say that Hancock’s department did not deliver what he had promised: a testing and tracing apparatus capable of allowing restrictions to be permanently eased.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued for looser restrictions and a less generous support scheme for businesses and individuals, creating the ideal conditions for the virus to spread. Some of the Chancellor’s fiercer critics have dubbed him the “secretary of state for the coronavirus” as a result. But Sunak’s allies argue any criticism should be directed at Hancock for failing to keep up his end of the bargain by providing an effective tracing system.

Sajid Javid, the Prime Minister’s first chancellor and (following Hancock’s resignation in June) now the Health Secretary, has, like Sunak, argued that the time has come for the UK to learn how to live with, rather than cower from, the virus.

After Javid tested positive for Covid-19 on 17 July, and Johnson and Sunak – who had both come into contact with the Health Secretary – reversed their decision not to self-isolate, the Labour MP Karen Buck tweeted a quote from Javid’s beloved Ayn Rand, in which the American writer talks of a government that is “free to do as it pleases”. But Javid’s allies would argue that it is the work of the scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech, not Rand’s The Fountainhead, that is influencing his decision-making.

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Johnson himself is inclined towards openness, hence his resistance to imposing a second lockdown in the autumn of 2020. On 19 July Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former aide, leaked WhatsApp messages appearing to show the Prime Minister suggesting, in October, that because most patients dying of Covid-19 were over 80 “we don’t go for nationwide lockdown”. The revelations had a muted impact at Westminster because Johnson’s reluctance to introduce restrictions was already well known. But Johnson also shies away from decisions that will make him unpopular, which is partly why the natural resting state of his government has been to open up the country as much as possible, and then to close it down whenever the NHS starts to show signs of strain.

After the lifting of most restrictions on 19 July, this pattern may be repeated in the coming months. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to contract Covid-19 – and if they do, they are less likely to pass it on to others, or to have it severely. But while vaccines can reduce the pressure on hospitals, they cannot eliminate it: whenever lockdown ends, a significant increase in the number of cases and therefore more hospitalisations will follow.

[see also: Boris Johnson is focusing too much on things he can’t control]

Part of the rationale for unlocking England on 19 July and not after the summer is that, come the autumn, the NHS will be under additional stress from a combination of usual seasonal factors, such as flu, as well as the consequences of more than a decade of public spending cuts. But the problem, as one Conservative MP put it wryly, is that “you can take a country to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Just because the Prime Minister says it is safe for people to go forth and mingle doesn’t mean they will. If they are reluctant, or take their time to go out and enjoy their new freedoms, a surge in coronavirus cases could yet come in the winter.

People can’t be made to take risks on command or to the government’s timetable, and it doesn’t help that the Prime Minister’s preferred register of public communication is warm reassurance. For all Johnson’s administrative shortcomings, many Tory MPs argue he was probably the best politician to lead the country during lockdown: he is never more at ease than when telling people the sun will come out tomorrow, or when he is cheerleading for British innovation and the skill of our scientists.

Now he must communicate a difficult trade-off: between maintaining healthcare capacity or inflicting the social costs of lockdown, which fall particularly heavily on the very young and the very old, who in different ways are having to give up time and experiences they can’t make up for after the era of confinement ends. When the time comes to talk frankly to the country about these compromises, Johnson’s usual register falls flat. In his statement on 19 July, his argument was “if not now, when?” – a rhetorical question that hides the real case for unlocking.

The question worrying some Conservative MPs is this: will the average day in the life of this government be more like March 2020, when the job of the Prime Minister was to provide a rallying cry and a dose of optimism? Or will it be more like July 2021, when the job of the Prime Minister is to set out trade-offs and tell the public things they don’t want to hear?

Those who think it will be the former still believe this government may achieve something tangible to go alongside its string of impressive electoral victories. But other MPs fear that, as British politics returns to normality after the pandemic, an “average” day in Johnson’s No 10 will be one in which very little is achieved – and that a Conservative government elected on a considerable majority will go into the next election without a single policy victory to its name.

[see also: After two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office has never been clearer]

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This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century