Will Boris Johnson’s Bread And Circuses Let Him ‘Move On’ In The Covid Crisis?

But the raw numbers may catch up with him in the end.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty.

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As a classical scholar, Boris Johnson will be aware of the Antonine Plague, the smallpox pandemic that ravaged the Roman Empire. At its peak in 189 AD, it took the lives of 2,000 people a day in the crowded capital alone. It’s safe to say Rome’s healthcare system was overwhelmed.

But judging from his latest moves to control our modern day killer of Covid-19, Johnson is also familiar with another key slice of Roman history: bread and circuses. Whereas the Emperors placated a restive populace with grain handouts and gladiatorial games, the PM is offering an English nation weary of lockdown the prospect of family garden BBQs and the return of the Premier League.

For many people, the easing of the social restrictions will come as a blessed relief. Being able to meet extended family and friends, in real life for the first time in more than two months, will be hugely welcome. Grandparents will be able to see grandchildren, young people can meet their friendship groups for a beer and a bite, the isolation of some of the elderly will end. Shares in Zoom could plunge.

Allowing groups of up to six people from different households to meet in back gardens (and parks) poses some challenges. You will not be allowed to linger in someone’s home, only to go through it to get to the garden. You will be able to use their loo, it seems, but only if you really, really wash your hands. And just make sure the hand sanitiser is next to the hotdog buns.‌

It’s true that Johnson caveated his presentation by saying it was all conditional, gradual, limited. But the overall message felt unmistakeable: the light at the end of his famous Alpine tunnel was bursting through the gloom and the green pasture is racing into view. Staycation king Matt Hancock even said this morning “let’s see” when asked if Brits could go on foreign holidays from July. The contrast in tone with the scientific advisers (who said the R rate was ‘very close to 1’ and “this set of figures urges caution”) felt very tangible.

And thanks to Dominic Cummings, whenever the PM now says anything vaguely prescriptive about the lockdown, his words take on a different, almost tragicomic light. “We don’t want people to stay overnight, we don’t want people to go to other households and stay there,” he told the Sun. “We are not saying people should now be allowed to move freely across the country and stay in other people’s houses.” Yerright, unless your parents own a farm with several cottages in Durham.

The idea of policing the new BBQs is of course risible. Already, many people have been staging not-so-secret gatherings in each other’s gardens, teenagers have been playing football, knocking back a few cans on the rec, and the cops have barely had the numbers or inclination to crack down.‌

Policing Cummings’ conduct has proved even trickier. Durham Police today declared that if one of its officers had stopped him while driving to Barnard Castle, they would have “likely advised Mr Cummings to return to the address in Durham, providing advice on the dangers of travelling during the pandemic crisis”. He “might” have broken the lockdown rules, and the courts would decide that, but it was clear the force was saying there was enough evidence for a case at least.‌

Downing Street preferred to ignore all that and focus on the journey from London to Durham being somehow ruled OK. The word “might” was turned into a pure hypothetical. But the PM didn’t want any Cummings hypotheticals raised in his press conference, taking the extraordinary step of twice refusing to allow his chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser to answer questions about the affair.

Although Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance did eventually say they didn’t want to be dragged into ‘political’ issues, it was a new low for Johnson to try to ‘interpose’ himself between the independent advisers and the media. To suggest that questions about Cummings’ conduct are ‘political’ - rather than about the integrity of the lockdown rules and public health messaging - was itself a fresh mindwarp.‌

Johnson flashed a Trumpian hint of blaming his predecessors yesterday, but even Trump allows his medics to take all questions thrown at them. The habit of ‘muting’ follow-up questions was also starkly on display today, an abuse of the virtual nature of the press conference that only served to make the PM look afraid of real scrutiny.

There is another Trump feel to the way Johnson is slowly shifting this pandemic from a national to a local issue. The president loves to devolve to state level rather than federal level if it means a shift in responsibility. Over here, it’s long been the case that the best way to kill an issue is to ‘go local’.

Why did George Osborne choose councils to carry the burden of austerity (cuts that are all too telling in social care)? Because it’s much harder to report on a myriad of local problems than a single national controversy. A cynic may similarly assume a move out of national lockdown to local lockdowns could have the same effect: the unaffected majority briefly raise an eyebrow, relieved it won’t affect them, then chuck another burger on the barbeque. The fact that tonight’s ClapForCarers could be the last of its kind is another sign that the PM could get his wish for the nation to ‘move on’.‌

Keir Starmer was smart enough to pop up swiftly on the news headlines to highlight Johnson’s initial attempt to gag the scientists. But he earlier said something much more wounding to the PM’s pride. “I don’t think he’s going to do anything [about Cummings] because he cannot, it seems, continue without his adviser.” The idea that this is a duumvirate government, with the PM and his adviser (not even the PM and his Chancellor) sharing power, is pretty damning.‌

In the end, the downside of the ‘bread and circuses’ approach is what happens when the bread runs out. Rishi Sunak is already reported to be set to force employers to pay 20% of furlough staff wages and pensions from August. If that bid to save cash backfires, the mass unemployment that many Tory MPs fear could actually materialise.‌

Even Cummings’ strategic brain and Johnson’s bonhomie may struggle with the raw numbers of 60,000 dead and millions on the dole. The broader populace may also conclude that the two Emperors really do have no clothes.

Quote Of The Day

“That is not my achievement or the government’s achievement - it is your achievement.”‌

Boris Johnson announcing his five tests for easing lockdown are now met

Thursday Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson announced six people from different households could meet up in gardens or parks from Monday. He confirmed schools would start to reopen from June 1 and more shops from June 15.

The NHS Test and Trace system began, but MPs said its boss Dido Harding had admitted that it wouldn’t be fully operational at local level until the end of next month. Matt Hancock said his NHSX app wouldn’t be ready for a couple of weeks.

Durham Police put out a statement that the Dominic Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle “might” have constituted a “minor breach” of lockdown laws “that would have warranted police intervention”.

A total of 37,837 people in the UK have died after testing positive for Covid-19. The FT estimated the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths in the world from the coronavirus pandemic after Spain, according to excess mortality figures.

The English Premier League is set to resume on June 17.‌

Dominic Raab announced that 300,000 British National Overseas passport holders living in Hong Kong could get a ‘path to citizenship’ in UK if China pushes ahead with new security laws.

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