POLITICS
24/03/2020 00:15 GMT | Updated 24/03/2020 09:29 GMT

Boris Johnson Finally Gets Serious About Coronavirus. But Is He Too Late?

We had better hope the lockdown works, for all our sakes.

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Police, please me

The prime minister had his ‘more in sorrow than anger’ face on and it was no wonder. He had begged, he had pleaded, hell, he had joked his way through the crisis. But, somewhat to his amazement, neither the virus nor the public had behaved as Boris Johnson had wanted.

“I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with coronavirus,” he told millions of TV viewers. OK, he didn’t quite put it like that, but he’d understand the journalistic licence.

Of course, he’d prefer to be Winston Churchill (“Never have so many owed so much to curfew…”) rather than Neville Chamberlain. We will find out in coming weeks, months - and maybe years - whether tonight’s crackdown actually does achieve its central aim of reducing deaths from the awful Covid-19.‌

The sombre tone was welcome and overdue. This is a man who once thought it appropriate to talk about a need to ‘squash the sombrero’, who joshed to potential ventilator manufacturers about their ‘last gasp’ help, who revealed that when he visited a hospital with coronavirus patients “I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know”.

And in the latest, greatest irony of all, he was now calling on the police - just 24 hours after ridiculing a female journalist who had the temerity to ask when exactly he was going to do just that. “Bring in the police??” he had said at his No.10 briefing on Sunday, after having himself talked of curfews. It’s a cliche that Johnson likes to be liked, yet this crisis has the potential to leave him dividing the country even more than during the Brexit referendum.

For many in the NHS, his record to date is not the pressing issue. The reckoning over his conduct to this point is for another day. The main thing is that he is finally acting to protect them from the coming onslaught. And forcing people to stay at home for all but essential brief trips outdoors will hugely help those on the real front line.

Yet even with this lockdown, he again prompts many unanswered questions. The Police Federation have made clear their unease at being asked to perform this role of checking on citizens’ behaviour - not least as it appears to be needed because of a massive government failure to communicate what ‘social distancing’ is (why no Facebook ads or motorway ads, as we saw for Vote Leave or no-deal Brexit?)

On a practical level, it’s hard to see just how the cops can track someone if they go out twice to different local food stories rather than once. Who will check if a rogue individual walks the dog in the morning and then goes for a run in the evening? Who will check if the three people in your outdoor gathering are made up of household members or just friends from another home?

One big real problem with the lockdown is that it’s happened without first putting in place wage support for the self-employed. Many ‘White Van Men and Women’ helped Johnson get elected with a huge majority, but are left facing an uncertain income made up of £93 a week plus a local housing allowance. Similarly, there was no updated guidance on which non-key worker work is deemed ‘absolutely necessary’ (Johnson’s phrase tonight) for travel. Building sites look like being closed in Scotland but in England there’s no real idea.

This is a fast moving crisis and many of his supporters will sympathise with Johnson that he just hasn’t had time to sort everything before announcing the draconian measures. But the economic measures and the health measures are closely entwined. Having said repeatedly the the state should not ‘penalise people for doing the right thing’, his package of action and inaction may mean the police dish out fixed penalty notices to those who feel compelled to work - because there is no government-backed alternative.

The bigger risk, as his scientific advisers have repeatedly stressed, is that the public may just weary of the new limits on their behaviour and that a second wave outbreak emerges later in the year, just at the time the NHS will be dealing with flu and other winter hells. It feels however that the crisis is so huge and so urgent that that is an argument for another day.

Still, the way Johnson has been forced to draft in the police is another unwelcome reminder for him of the very Tory austerity he managed to magic away in the last election.

He wants to recruit 20,000 more officers, but just imagine how much better prepared the UK would be if the Conservatives hadn’t cut 20,000 in the past 10 years? He has plans to hire 50,000 more nurses, but just imagine how much more confident the NHS would be if it had hired more staff, more quickly over the past decade, rather than coping with a funding squeeze under Cameron and May?

Small cuts may turn out to have been big cuts too. Local council trading standards officers will have to accompany police on their patrols of shops to see who’s breaching the lockdown and who isn’t. But their numbers have been reduced over the years as town halls were once again seen as the first choice for big savings.

Johnson’s national address was undeniably a big historic moment. Children will remember in years to come how they huddled round their TVs, as families of yesteryear huddled round the wireless, back in the days when that term meant something other than WiFi.

But is Boris Johnson going to be remembered as a Churchill or a Chamberlain? Well, it’s worth remembering that both ended up being swept aside. After Chamberlain came Churchill and after Churchill came Attlee: a slightly boring Labour leader who wanted to ‘win the peace’. Even if he battles through this crisis, the public may want to replace Johnsonian flamboyance at the next election with steady Keir Starmer-esque competence. Fortunately for the PM, 2024 is years away.

And right now, party politics has of course to be put to one side. We can all only hope that he’s finally found the right strategy to fight Covid-19 and that it’s not too late. As the virus creeps among our communities, ravaging the sick and the old, never before has the phrase ‘the enemy within’ felt more appropriate.

Quote Of The Day

“I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives”

Boris Johnson

Monday Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson ordered a ‘national emergency’ lockdown to order people to stay at home.

The British death toll from the disease jumped by 54 to 335, the second highest daily increase since the virus hit the country. Primary school head Wendy Jacobs was among the dead.

The emergency Coronavirus Bill, which gives ministers new powers to forcibly quarantine suspected patients, will be reviewed every six months, No.10 announced.

But Labour slammed the government for failing to include a full ban on evictions for renters. John Healey said the bill “just gives them some extra time to pack their bag”’.

Health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that 7,563 medical staff - doctors, nurses, midwives and others - have now responded to his call to return to our NHS to tackle the virus crisis.

Britain’s rail network was effectively renationalised when transport secretary Grant Shapps suspended franchise agreements due to a collapse in passenger numbers and revenues during the outbreak.

Parliament is set to break up early for its Easter break this week, once it has passed key emergency legislation covering the Covid-19 outbreak.‌

Brits overseas should “return home now” to the UK while commercial flights are still an option, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said.

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond was acquitted of all 14 charges in the sexual offences trial.

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