Boris Johnson Could Come Unstuck If 'Unlockdown' Fails The Trust Test

PM ready to roll the dice as he cuts social distancing from 2m.

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Trust fund politics

Two metres or not two metres, that is not the question. Tonight’s meeting of the C-19 Strategy Committee, chaired by Boris Johnson and attended by a handful of key cabinet ministers, is almost certain to have amended the 6ft 6in social distancing guidance that has dominated all our lives since late March.

No, the real question is just whether the PM can retain public trust if he gets this big call wrong, and if he miscalculates just how quickly the UK should exit coronavirus lockdown. The ‘comprehensive review’ of the 2m rule (now no longer even called a rule) has involved not just scientists and medics but, crucially, economists. Underlining this is ultimately a political decision, it’s the full Cabinet that is expected to rubber stamp it tomorrow.

‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ - or rather ‘trust me, because I’m trusting the doctors’ - was the approach that worked extremely effectively, early in the pandemic. Matt Hancock talked a lot about ‘shielding’ tonight, but it’s the scientists who’ve acted as a human shield for this government so far.

And if the PM decides to host a No.10 press conference confirming the change, there will inevitably be questions for the boffins if they turn up to flank him. Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has already paved the way for a change (thanks to an elastic definition of social distancing).

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty is in a slightly trickier spot. Not that long ago, he told us that the 2m rule, like hand washing, “good cough etiquette” and the use of face coverings “are going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues”. He may of course have meant ‘physical distancing of some kind of length’ would be a key element.‌

It could be that 2m will remain a benchmark for those without masks, but 1m will be the new normal for those with masks, thus sparing Sage’s blushes. The main priority for the PM and many Tory MPs is that key sectors of the economy like pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers should finally be allowed to open their doors again.

Johnson himself had a very telling phrase on Sunday as he discussed plans for the hospitality sector from July 4, declaring “we’re sticking absolutely like glue to the road map to the plan that I set out”. For some critics, that just proved this was about sticking to his timeline above all else, rather than a conditional, cautious approach.

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.
Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.

As it happens, the PM didn’t stick like superglue or even velcro to his plan for getting ‘all’ primary school children back to school for a full month before the summer break. But abandoning the 2m rule will certainly help get more kids into the classroom just as it will help employers in several hard hit sectors.

At the press conference tonight, the most striking thing was just how both Hancock and deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries stressed the non-medical side of life. The health secretary revealed a decision on travel corridors would be made “in good time” even before the June 29 review deadline. Harries said children with mild asthma had a “very, very significant risk” of falling behind with their education, and “very, very low risk” of Covid.‌

Even for those shielding, Harries said the social interaction of “going to work and doing something purposeful, is really important for your ongoing health, and your economic and mental health as well”. At one point, she even used the PM’s own political terminology, referring to “the levelling up programme” of this government to help poorer areas hit by coronavirus.

But while summer pints, haircuts and holidays will cheer many, Harries herself also had a warning that she would be worried “if we get to the winter and people don’t continue to socially distance”. And even in savvy South Korea, there was bad news today as its own chief scientist revealed a new spike in cases. “We originally predicted that the second wave [would] emerge in fall or winter...Our forecast turned out to be wrong. As long as people are having close contact with others, we believe that infections will continue,” Jung Eun-kyeong said.

If there’s a second spike this winter in the UK, the real casualty will be a further erosion of public trust in health messaging. A new YouGov poll today showed the voters still put health above the economy, with 69% saying the lives saved by the lockdown have been worth the economic and social disruption. Just 17% think that the disruption to the economy has not been worth it. Moreover, 74% of Brits say they’re fairly or very worried about a second wave here.

Focus group expert Deborah Mattinson had a fascinating finding the other week which should have caused deep unease among some of the PM’s team. Yes, Dominic Cummings’ conduct led to a big drop in public trust in government messaging. But the bigger drop had already happened a week earlier - when the PM himself suddenly changed the ‘Stay Home’ advice to the much less intelligible ‘Stay Alert’ mantra. The latest change to social distancing certainly carries the risk of political sunburn once the holiday season is over.

Quote Of The Day

“Based on the information that we had at the time our guidance was correct. That is not the same as saying we would do the same again.”

Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at DHSC, channels ‘Yes Minister’ when challenged on how patients were discharged in huge numbers to care homes.

Monday Cheat Sheet

2.2 million vulnerable people who have been shielding from coronavirus will be allowed to gather in groups of up to six people outdoors from July 6, Matt Hancock announced. From August 1, they won’t have to shield at all.

Priti Patel said that this weekend’s murders in Reading proved made “clear that the threat posed by lone actors is growing”. Since 2017 the UK security services have foiled 25 terrorist plots in total, including eight planned by the far right.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) looks set to be re-established imminently, sources have told the BBC.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs he was consulting with exam regulator Ofqual about plans to delay exams in England next year, to give pupils more time to prepare. In French schools, the 1m social distancing rule was dropped today.

What I’m Reading

EU Leaders Risking Second Wave Of Euroscepticism - CapX

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