Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
7 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:28am

Boris Johnson is facing the defining decision of his career over how to ease the lockdown

The measures that the government can take to alleviate the economic crisis also risk increasing Covid-19 infection rates.

By Ailbhe Rea

It is crunch time for Boris Johnson this morning as he convenes his cabinet to thrash out the final details of tweaks to the lockdown, which he is expected to announce on Sunday. 

The papers are full of speculation and reports of what these first steps out of lockdown will look like. It is fairly certain that outdoor activity will be the first area where restrictions will be eased, with picnics, driving to the countryside for a ramble, and leaving the house multiple times a day for exercise expected to be permitted from Monday. But other details are unconfirmed: mainly because they haven’t been decided yet, and draft plans are subject to change.

The differences of opinion within the cabinet on the subject are well-known, and this morning’s meeting takes place against the stark backdrop of the Bank of England’s warnings that the UK economy could shrink by 14 per cent this year, in what would be “the country’s biggest economic slump in 300 years”. (Given the huge number of assumptions and uncertainties involved, this is a “plausible illustrative economic scenario” rather than a forecast from the bank.)

It is a stark reminder of quite how much is at stake in these decisions. Unemployment is predicted to rise to 9 per cent, with many families on the brink of destitution, while many other families grieve the loss of loved ones to this virus. The levers that the government can pull to alleviate the strain on the economy are also, in many cases, those that create the biggest risk around transmission rates.

Reopening schools, for example, is one of the most effective levers the government can pull to allow people to return to work, but it would also remove one of the most effective ways of containing the disease. Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, last week said there was “no doubt” that reopening schools would increase the reproduction rate of the virus. A new report from the University of East Anglia (that has yet to be peer-reviewed) has found, by comparing data from 30 European countries, that closing schools, along with closing bars, restaurants, and clubs, was the most effective measure to contain the spread of the virus. Reverse-engineer that, and re-opening schools and the hospitality sector will carry the greatest risk of Covid-19 transmission. 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

It is fairly certain that the government’s approach will be to lift one restriction at a time over a number of months, paying careful attention to how each tweak impacts on the R rate. So it’s fair to say that Sunday’s announcement will be one of a series of important announcements in the weeks and months ahead, and this cabinet discussion will be one of several crunch talks. 

Content from our partners
Building the business case for growth
“On supporting farmers, McDonald’s sets a high standard”
City of London Corporation brings stakeholders together to drive climate action

But there is no way of overstating quite how important the choices made today will be. Collectively, the decisions over the ending of lockdown will be the definitive ones of Johnson’s career. He himself alluded yesterday to the likelihood of an inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response when this is over. History is watching this cabinet meeting and this Prime Minister, as they move to lead the country out of an economic crisis and a public health crisis that are inextricably linked.

Topics in this article :