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20 March 2020

Why has the UK government still not imposed strict measures to tackle coronavirus?

The Prime Minister may be merely delaying action but Conservative MPs fear the strategy reflects Johnson’s aversion to the “nanny state”.  

By Stephen Bush

Schools will close for an indefinite period today, with the exception of the children of key workers – a full list of that group is here

The full list – as with all of the government’s more developed crisis-fighting measures  – underlines the scientific reality, which is, yes, it’s possible that the promising advances to fight the disease will mean this is over by summer – but it’s also possible that we will be living like this for an indefinite period, and that we will be practicing social distancing for some time. 

Yet Boris Johnson opened his press conference by saying that the crisis could be beaten in 12 weeks, while Downing Street has categorically denied that it will shut down movement in and out of London. But as the analysis by the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch showsthe United Kingdom’s trajectory clearly puts us – and indeed the rest of the world – on the same trajectory as Italy. We therefore can’t say with any certainty that we won’t end up with the same restrictions as Italy. 

It’s not clear if Johnson is betting that, in the event, he can emulate Emmanuel Macron, who told Parisians and others that the decision of some people not to follow the rules meant that everyone would now have to submit to far stricter measures. Or perhaps, as some Conservatives fear, Johnson’s aversion to anything that looks like nanny state measures means that he is simply in denial about what will be coming down the track if those promising medical developments don’t bear fruit. 

The problem is that the government’s aversion to talking about the level of uncertainty involved means that an opportunity is being missed to provide clarity and reassurance. One of the things that Johnson could be doing is explaining that, yes, while Italy is in lockdown, the free movement of food and goods has continued in that country, and in China, and will continue in the UK too. But the problem with offering guarantees that the British government has no ability to deliver on over the spread and fight against the disease, is that the guarantees you can trust are being tainted by association. 

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If Johnson’s optimism and certainty is bailed out by a scientific breakthrough, that won’t matter. He can exit this crisis with his improved popularity rating and the government’s still intact. But if it’s not, then he will have made both his and the British medical profession’s job much harder. His first press conference on coronavirus included a graph – it might be helpful if his next one included a few error bars.