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14 October 2020

Boris Johnson hasn’t found a “middle way“ through the Covid-19 crisis

The government isn't pursuing a "balanced" approach – just a slow route to the same destination.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has called for a two-week lockdown in which schools would remain open but essentially everything else would close, in order to get the rate of infections back under control and the United Kingdom’s ability to test, trace and isolate fresh cases of the novel coronavirus working properly. 

From Labour’s perspective, the politics are win-win-win. As Ailbhe explains in greater detail, either Boris Johnson moves towards Starmer’s position, or Starmer is on the side of public opinion and the course of action that Sage analysis says would save thousands of lives. 

And in the short term, Starmer gets a clip of him looking competent and calm on the six and the ten o’clock news and his sound-bite on the top of the hour across music radio, regardless of how it plays out. At a stroke, it gives Labour MPs and frontbenchers something to say when asked, “Well, what would you have done differently?” A good day at the office for the Labour leader. 

But forget the politics, what about the policy? We know that, whether you are the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Taiwan or Rwanda, you have only three options to prevent the novel coronavirus overwhelming healthcare infrastructure. You can have a young population which the disease passes through without hospitalising large numbers of people. You can have a functioning system to test, trace and isolate new cases. And if you don’t have either of those, you can lock down to buy yourself time to build a system to test, trace and isolate new cases. 

The problem is that lockdown is a policy with costs, too. Economically, it means either heavy job losses or vast expenditure to support businesses. Socially, it exerts a heavy toll on the mental and physical health of the nation. Starmer’s argument that schools should be exempted from a lockdown, and his party’s longstanding support for an extension of the original furlough, is a way around some of those costs, but not all of them. 

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The argument that Johnson loyalists make is that he is pursuing a “balanced” approach: a middle way between the circuit-break lockdown favoured by Starmer and by Sage, and the “let the economy and society adjust” strategy favoured by lockdown sceptics on the right, such as Chris Green, the Conservative MP for Bolton West, who has resigned as a parliamentary private secretary in protest at the government’s new lockdown measures. 

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But that argument falls down if you talk to, say, three businesses. No one in business thinks that the restrictions in tier two are a good environment to trade in, let alone those in tier three, but at least in tier three there is economic and financial support available to businesses. The government’s current approach isn’t a middle way, it’s just a slow path to the same economic pain of a lockdown, with a higher body count. 

Sooner or later, you have to choose: do you want the Green approach or the Starmer approach? Johnson has yet to pick either and he is still kidding himself that there is a middle way to be found. That the Labour leader has got ahead of him and picked a side might be the biggest political development of the entire pandemic. 

[see also: Everybody has missed one loophole in the new lockdown rules]