Boris Johnson has announced a tougher system of regional, tiered coronavirus restrictions in England, to be brought in when the England-wide lockdown ends on 2 December, and last until the end of March.
The Prime Minister has been widely reported to be hoping for a “reset” of his premiership after the dramatic departures of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, and this moment is maybe the closest thing he will find to one.
When Johnson reluctantly announced a second national lockdown on 31 October, it was the first time in months that his government had a single, coherent coronavirus policy. Since the easing of the first lockdown, the health response and economic response could have been the work of two different administrations, as Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak each pursued their respective interests and agendas with no decisive Prime Minister to make the two approaches cohere. It was only when Johnson was advised that the NHS could be overrun without tougher and urgent action that he finally brought the two coronavirus policies into line, with the blunt instrument of a national lockdown in England, and the economic support of the original furlough scheme to match.
Now, having had nearly a month to prepare for the promised ending of the second lockdown, this is the Prime Minister’s chance to reset the government’s coronavirus policy for “one final push until the spring”, with an approach that belatedly addresses many of the criticisms of the earlier tiered system and that is guaranteed to be more coherent from a health/economy perspective than the last time, given the extension of the furlough scheme until the end of March.
The new coronavirus restrictions will, for one thing, be much tougher: not only will more areas be placed in higher tiers, but the rules themselves have been strengthened, in a belated attempt to address the long-cited concerns from the government’s scientific advisers that tiered restrictions on their own would not be enough to reverse the trend of increasing cases, only to slow their increase.
The 10pm curfew is also to be abandoned, after months of haranguing over the lack of evidence for the measure. Last orders will still be at 10pm but customers can drink up until 11pm, as the government adopts what has essentially been the Welsh curfew system all along, which Labour called for in England in mid-October.
There will also be a uniform set of rules for each tier, mitigating some of the controversy and confusion over negotiated, tailored restrictions for individual areas.
And finally, as Johnson was keen to emphasise, “it should be possible to move down the scale of tiers” under the new tougher system, as the top levels of restrictions, combined with increased testing, are expected to continue to reverse the growth in cases. This is the point of most concern for those who have been under local lockdowns and the top tier of restrictions for months on end; they and their politicians want a guarantee that moving down the scale is a possibility in the immediate term, and not just when the restrictions are lifted for everybody at the end of March.
It has always, theoretically, been possible to have a successful, regional approach to coronavirus restrictions, but the previous system of local lockdowns didn’t work over the summer, and the jury is out over whether the much-criticised tiered system pre-lockdown was beginning to work. The second lockdown has given Boris Johnson the gift of time to address the familiar criticisms of that system, in the hope that the home stretch of the government’s coronavirus response will be its most successful period yet.
But there is a final hurdle for the Prime Minister, and that is Christmas. A politician famed for disliking delivering bad news and with a well-known “cake and eat it” approach to policy-making has to find a way to make his desire to let people celebrate Christmas with their loved ones cohere with all of his own warnings about not failing at the final hurdle of our coronavirus response.
That announcement on guidance for Christmas is expected tomorrow (Tuesday 24). It is the final test for a Prime Minister who belatedly brought his Health Secretary and Chancellor onto the same page, and who is resolving familiar criticisms of the government’s tiered approach in England at the eleventh hour of our pandemic response. This time, the Prime Minister’s challenge isn’t making the health and economic responses cohere, but his owns instincts with his better judgement.