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13 October 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 10:24am

Boris Johnson’s government has chosen the economy over health

No 10's biggest remaining asset is that voters feel no other government could have handled the Covid-19 crisis better.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson’s government has unveiled its three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions in England, with much of the North East and North West, as well as Nottingham and Birmingham, put into the “high” risk category, while Liverpool and some of the surrounding area has been put into the “very high” risk tier.

The day began with a farcical morning of attempted Zoom calls between Matt Hancock and MPs from the relevant areas (more on that on today’s podcast) and ended with some sobering revelations late last night: that the government rejected urgent recommendations from the advisory group Sage on 21 September to implement a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown to bring the virus under control, as well as four other recommendations. These were to ban contact with other households inside the home; to close pubs and restaurants; to advise people to work from home if they can; and to conduct all university and college teaching remotely. The only recommendation they implemented was the advice on working from home.

[see also: The New Statesman’s hyperlocal Covid-19 tracker]

In the Sage minutes, published last night, the government’s independent scientific advisers are clear that only this level and intensity of restrictions would be sufficient to reverse the exponential rise in cases. Given the government’s failure to adopt these, it isn’t difficult to arrive at the uncomfortable and inevitable conclusion: these measures may do something to make the exponential rise in cases less steep, but they won’t reverse the trend, and cases will continue to rise.

It means there is a strange sense of putting off the inevitable today. People in Liverpool are now under very strict measures and swathes of the country have been in a form of lockdown for months, but we still don’t have a clear picture of what the next few months will bring, given the apparently inevitable need for further measures as cases continue to rise.

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The government hasn’t rejected this urgent advice from Sage just for kicks, of course; it has reasoned that the country can’t afford these measures from an economic perspective, at least not yet. Given that further restrictions are likely further down the line, and may need to last longer as case numbers increase, this may prove to be an error economically, as well as in terms of virus containment.

[see also: A third of UK residents are under local lockdowns – but has this changed their behaviour?]

But, for all that this will be put down to incompetence from the government after a summer of crises and a terrible record both on death rates and the depth of our recession, it is worth noting that the UK government is far from alone in rejecting advice from its scientific advisers about harsher restrictions. We saw the same thing in the Republic of Ireland last week, when the coalition government rejected calls from its top scientific advisers for the top tier of restrictions, again for economic reasons. 

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It doesn’t mean that both decisions aren’t foolhardy. But it is a small reminder of the feeling among plenty of voters that, however many mistakes the government makes, this is an unprecedented crisis, and no other government could have done it better. It is the public attitude that explains why the Conservatives have not yet sunk too badly in the polls, and it could yet be the government’s saving grace. 

[see also: Most people support restrictions over Christmas – so why won’t they quarantine?]