18/05/2020 22:26 BST | Updated 19/05/2020 08:46 BST

Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow: Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 Foxtrot?

A dance with death. Conditions apply.

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Bury in the lead?

Bury in Greater Manchester has several claims to fame. The birthplace of Robert Peel, the Tory prime minister who created Britain’s first police force, hometown of filmmaker Danny Boyle and comedian Victoria Wood, it even boasts a rather fine line in black puddings. But within political circles, it is best known as a key bellwether town.

Bury North is in fact the most marginal seat in Great Britain, with just 105 votes separating winner Tory James Daly from defeated ex-Labour MP James Frith. Bury South also has a wafer-thin Tory majority of 402 votes (and another Conservative gain in 2019). It’s no wonder that Keir Starmer’s early event in his leadership campaign was a ‘MarginalSeatTest’ with Frith. And no surprise that his first ‘Call Keir’ zoom call event as Labour leader was with the town’s voters.

Well, today, Bury is in the news again for making a bit of history, and one shot through with political ramifications. The Labour-run council became the first in England to say it definitely will not reopen its schools on June 1, as things stand. That makes it even more hardline than Liverpool, where the Mayor has suggested his own declaration of independence from education secretary Gavin Williamson’s plans to admit more pupils to primary schools.

In a sign of the faultlines opening up, the Tory group leader in Bury has said this looks like “a purely political decision”. Both sides are saying the science is what matters most, and until the DfE or SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] publishes that advice, it feels as though individual heads, teachers, unions and political parties will remain divided. Even Tories who are keen on localism are not that keen on different areas of England being split on issues as fundamental as safety of schooling.


Of course, there are fault lines within parties too, as proved by Labour’s former education secretaries Alan Johnson and David Blunkett both pushing hard for early opening to help disadvantaged pupils. Tonight, Tony Blair (under whose premiership Labour always held both Bury parliamentary seats) will tell Newsnight that “there are some children who will have been having no education at all...you’ve got to get the schools back”. Some in the shadow cabinet think their own position could shift too, if the medical evidence is clear.

As coincidence would have it, a Bury resident asked the first question at the No.10 press conference today. ‘Danny’ (no, it wasn’t Boyle) asked when the government will publish a ‘swift’ economic recovery plan. Dominic Raab seemed rather taken aback at the suggestion that there was a lack of plans published so far, but insisted that it was a “roadmap with maximum conditionality”. And again, those conditions will come down not to the science, but to who thinks what about the science.

It’s perfectly possible that if the government doesn’t meet all its own conditions or tests, then the June 1 date could be delayed, at least for schools. Some ministers are relaxed about the idea of a one or even a two week delay, if that’s what’s needed to get the number of cases or R down further. They complain that Starmer called for an exit strategy, then deliberately ignored its conditionality when one was produced.

Curiously, for an administration that is keen on conditionality, getting a full-scale testing and tracing capability up and running is not explicitly one of those conditions. Matt Hancock has gently tried to decouple his tracing plans from the wider lockdown easing phases, perhaps to give the PM more freedom. Yet as was clear today, his NHSX app (which he’d said would be “rolled out” by now) may not be ready in time for the next review of the situation on May 28, or that June 1 school date. Shoe-leather contact tracing is slower, and could add another reason for a sensible delay.

The political danger is that having raised some hopes with his timetable, Boris Johnson ends up being accused of a political foxtrot: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Too slow on some key areas (lockdown, testing, PPE), too quick on others (discharging hospital patients to care homes without enough testing and PPE, racing to get schools back, rushing his ‘stay alert’ address to the nation) and then going ‘slow’ again as he recalibrates his way through this crisis.

The people of Bury may ultimately be very understanding about this political dance. But as some polls suggested this weekend, they may not.

Quote Of The Day

“We may have to live and learn to live with this virus in the long term, and certainly for many months to come, if not several years.”

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam

Monday Cheat Sheet

People who lose their normal sense of smell will now be asked to self-isolate with suspected coronavirus, in line with an expanded list of officially recognised symptoms.

Everyone aged five and over in the UK with symptoms can now be tested for coronavirus, Matt Hancock announced, just after Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the move for Scotland.

Northern Ireland announced groups of up to six people who do not live in the same household will be allowed to meet outdoors.

Families hoping for an overseas summer holiday have been given a glimmer of hope after Grant Shapps floated the idea of “air bridges” between the UK and countries with a low incidence of Covid-19. He also confirmed that nearly 44,000 airline staff have been furloughed.

The government’s flagship Immigration Bill is due to get its second reading, despite Labour vowing to vote against.

More than 6,000 jobs are at risk after owners of the Bella Italia and Cafe Rouge restaurant chains filed intent to appoint administrators at the High Court.‌

Most younger Leave voters think the UK should keep or boost EU regulations and standards after Brexit, a new poll has suggested.

What I’m Reading

Check out this superb piece of reportage in the Miami Herald. While passengers on cruise liners have long since escaped, many staff are still trapped, some with no pay. And there have been at least two suicides.

100,000 crew members remain in cruise ship limbo for months - Miami Herald

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