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4 November 2020updated 10 Jan 2021 6:28pm

Leader: Locked down again

Boris Johnson’s fatal indecision flowed from a false divide between saving the economy and protecting public health. 

By New Statesman

On 21 October, Boris Johnson denounced the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s proposal of a short second national lockdown at half-term as “the height of absurdity”. A mere ten days later, the Prime Minister announced that he would be imposing a lockdown in England from 5 November. Mr Johnson is renowned for his inconsistency. But a reversal of this kind is indicative of something deeper: a toxic combination of complacency and ineptitude.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, as Jason Cowley writes on page seven, Mr Johnson has struggled to “find a voice – a style, an idiom – in which to speak to and for the nation, as Churchill did during the Second World War”. The Prime Minister, an optimist and boaster by nature, has repeatedly given the public false hope, promising on 19 March that “we can send coronavirus packing” and in July heralding “a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas”.

Reality has proved a more stubborn opponent.

Had Mr Johnson listened to the public health experts he has intermittently cited, he would have known that a second wave of Covid-19 was inevitable. Faced with this, the Johnson government should have applied the lessons learned from the first one. On that occasion, after imposing a national lockdown perilously late, Britain suffered the highest reported excess death rate of any European country and the worst recession of any G7 member state.

[see also: Tory MPs dislike Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 strategy, but they don’t have an alternative]

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Yet, when confronted by a familiar threat in September, Mr Johnson again equivocated and delayed.

Most European leaders have struggled in their response to the pandemic. As Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said on 31 October: “There are no good solutions.” But Mr Johnson’s struggles have been especially dismaying. His indecision partly reflects his freedom-loving instincts and those of an unrepresentative but powerful group of Conservative MPs. The libertarians held sway over the summer, when low infection rates were deceptively comforting. Now the public health voices are dominating, as the numbers are running out of control.

Yet Mr Johnson’s indecision also flowed from a false divide between saving the economy and protecting public health. As Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, notes on page 16, an uncontrolled pandemic serves neither purpose: “The countries that went in hard, dealt with their public health problem  and then released had a better economic recovery. In the West, in general, we went into a late lockdown and therefore it was a long lockdown.”

The UK’s Covid-19 debate is often framed as one between “herd immunity” and perpetual lockdowns. But neither choice is desirable or necessary. Allowing the virus to spread uncontrolled would overwhelm the NHS and cost tens of thousands of lives without any guarantee of mass immunity. Repeated lockdowns, however, inflict social, economic and psychological harm.

Rather than imposing haphazard restrictions, the UK needs what it has so far lacked: a coherent strategy for responding to and controlling Covid-19. This depends most of all on a test, trace and isolate system, under which individuals have the financial support necessary to quarantine (Britain’s statutory sick pay remains among the lowest in Europe). It also requires stricter border controls, including airport testing, and consistent government messaging: bewildered citizens were ordered to return to work in late August and then commanded to stay at home a few weeks later.

The fleeting sense of national solidarity that prevailed at the start of the crisis has long dissipated. As England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have charted divergent courses, the UK has seldom appeared more fractured. A leader equal to this crisis could have used it to rebuild the bonds frayed by austerity and Brexit. Instead, the four nations are pulling apart just when they should be coming together.

[see also: Devi Sridhar: How the UK can avoid an endless cycle of lockdowns]

This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos