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Does he know his Rs from his elbow?
As a former journalist, Boris Johnson is more aware than most of the constant demands of the media for something new. Today, he finally caved to demands for more clarity about his plans to ease the UK out of its Covid-19 lockdown. And he did so by showering the No.10 press conference with a veritable confetti of front-page story material.
We are officially “past the peak” of the pandemic in Britain. He will set out next week a “comprehensive plan” for the economy, schools, the workplace and travel. The wearing of face coverings has been endorsed by his scientific advisers. Oh, and there won’t be any new round of “austerity” to pay for the coronavirus crisis response. The PM was a one-man news machine.
There was also a fresh public information film about the reproduction rate of the virus (known as ‘R’) to underline the shift from the simple ‘stay-at-home/protect-the-NHS/save-lives’ message to the next phase in the fight against this disease. As Johnson put it, “keeping the R down” below 1 (so person-to-person transmission is reducing not increasing) “is going to be absolutely vital.”
Even the scientists came armed with new information, revealing that the R rate now was between 0.6 and 0.9 nationally and as low as between 0.5 to 0.7 in London. And on the vexed issue of testing, it looked like Matt Hancock could breathe a sigh of relief as the latest daily figure hit a massive 81,611. After days of a holding pattern in the press conferences, it all felt like there were real developments to share with the nation.
Yet there was also a notable defensiveness too to the PM’s performance. It wasn’t just the way he quibbled with Robert Peston’s use of the word ‘austerity’. (“I’ve never particularly liked the term that you’ve just used to describe government economic policy” suggested he was happy with cuts but just didn’t want to give them a post-war nametag). It was the overall line that his government has so far done far better than many expected on Covid-19.
To some, Johnson will have seemed like a man in an impossible job (he still looked tired after his illness) trying to set out how he and his team had done their best against a brand new enemy. To others, he probably looked like a politician getting his excuses in first, before the inevitable public inquiry exposes errors that cost lives.
Johnson’s opening speech certainly had the texture of a draft case for the defence at any such inquiry. The UK had managed to “avoid the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world,” he said. “We avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic where the reasonable worst case scenario was 500,000 deaths,” he added.
The PM and Hancock deserve huge credit in ensuring the NHS was not overwhelmed, something that Prof Neil Ferguson and chief medical officer Chris Whitty have said was a close-run thing. There were indeed enough ventilators and intensive care beds. When it comes to places that were “engulfed” Johnson was probably referring to Italy (he said the day before our own lockdown that Italy’s health system had been “overwhelmed”).
Yet given that our current deaths seem to be higher than Italy’s, his comparison doesn’t seem that apt. Similarly, when the PM talked of avoiding half a million deaths, that was Imperial College’s estimate of what would happen if the UK had not responded at all to the disease and let it rip. So that 500,000 figure hardly seems like a credible benchmark for measuring a country’s actual response.
It’s true that the PM is more sombre than sombrero these days (who could forget his blithe “flatten the sombrero” remark in his early I-still-shake-hands-me phase?). He still couldn’t resist a wistful reference to his own European holidays with that line about alpine tunnels and pastures and running “slap into a second and even bigger mountain”.
The fact was that he couldn’t stop comparing the UK to other countries. The UK had gone into lockdown “earlier in the curve of our epidemic than it was relatively speaking in France, Italy and Spain”, he pointed out. Our daily testing rate was now comparable to “any country in Europe”. He gave the game away by then remembering “we are supposed to be deprecating these international comparisons”.
And yet, as ever Johnson wanted to have his cake and eat it. Challenged on the prospect that the UK could end up having among the worst death rates in Europe if not the whole world, he riffed that “people should understand that the collecting of data internationally is bedevilled with difficulties and comparisons are very, very difficult”.
There’s a lot of truth in that, as Whitty said, and as this piece in the Guardian made clear. He was also right to say that real test and the only real comparison could be at the end of the epidemic, when total excess deaths are counted - both direct and indirect in the wake of Covid-19. Or, as Chris Whitty put it, the statistics for “all-cause mortality, adjusted for age”.
But those statistics will come in time, and the data will be crunched into formats that do indeed allow us to compare like with like. That’s when the reckoning will come. Many British politicians love an international league table (on economic growth, education outcomes), as long as they’re high up on it.
There was one hint today of the PM admitting he had indeed delayed the lockdown perhaps longer than some wished. Pointing to the fact that it was a “very, very demanding thing to ask the population to do” (something his advisers made clear early too), he then had this fascinating line that as result it was “completely right to make our period of lockdown coincide as far as we possibly could with the peak of the epidemic”.
Given that, as Whitty has said, our current peak is an “artificial peak”, that’s an odd thing to say. The peak’s height is very much caused by the lockdown, after all. Yet that idea of trying to “coincide” or time the lockdown lay bare his own attempts to wait and wait for the right moment to hit the brakes. Many suggest that even a 10-day delay will have had huge consequences.
The most significant case for the defence today, however, was Johnson’s line this: “I genuinely think I look back at what the UK has done...I think we did the right measures, at the right time.”
The fundamental problem with his ‘right thing at the right time’ mantra (which has been unchanged since early in the crisis) is this: how can he judge now whether he did the ‘right’ things (on PPE, testing, for example)? Even if they were right (like the lockdown), how can he be sure he didn’t do them at the wrong time? And as he himself points out, only the full excess deaths data later this year or early next, can tell us the real answer.
Quote Of The Day
“[It’s] as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”
Boris Johnson on how the UK has come through Covid-19 so far
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Latest figures showed that 26,711 people had died in all care settings after testing positive for Covid-19, a rise of 674. But the number of tests carried out jumped to 81,611.
Government sources said the total capacity for daily tests had gone up to just under 90,000.
Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said that early trials of the drug Remdesivir showed “promising” signs but no “statistically significant effect on deaths”. Chris Whitty added that more peer-reviewed data was needed.
Police revealed that they had handed out 8,877 fines for breaches of the lockdown in England between March 27 and April 27.
Jeremy Corbyn’s senior aide Seumas Milne is still on the payroll of the Labour party, nearly four weeks after Keir Starmer became leader.
What I’m Reading
Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing - Atlantic
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