POLITICS
12/07/2021 21:36 BST | Updated 12/07/2021 21:38 BST

Is Boris Johnson’s Half-Nelson Approach To Covid A Triumph Of Hope Over Expectation?

PM signals new caution with implied threat if public abuse new freedoms

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVASPA
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson

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“England expects that every man will do his duty”. Admiral Nelson’s famous flagship signal, issued on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, was for years scribbled down in history notebooks by wide-eyed school children taught the classic tale of heroism and sacrifice.

Boris Johnson was clearly one such pupil, because it seems that Nelson’s message is now his main public health policy for dealing with a very 21st century pandemic. The PM told his latest Downing Street briefing that “we expect and recommend” that the public should wear face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces used by strangers.

The phrase “expectation management” is beloved of politicians trying to massage reaction to an anticipated election, but this is whole new territory. Johnson clearly believes that he can somehow massage the public’s Covid conscience by just telling them that he expects them to do the right thing.

Proving this was not a mere verbal tic of the PM’s, health secretary Sajid Javid used the “expected and recommended” phrase in his update to the Commons too. Javid even had a variation on this theme of a sense of personal duty rather than public requirement, saying he would be “encouraging” businesses to use Covid ‘passports’ to limit the spread of the virus.

Expecting, encouraging and recommending aren’t, of course, the same as compelling or strongly advising. That’s why several medics and scientists are worried that as we head for the “Freedom Day” of July 19, there has been just too much mixed messaging from the government on issues like mask-wearing and working from home.

Still, Monday showed that Johnson and his ministers are beginning to realise the error of last week’s hard emphasis on “personal responsibility”. Just a few days ago, ministers were talking about wanting to bin masks because they were just a bit irritated by wearing them or because (novel one this) face coverings made it difficult to communicate with the hard of hearing.

The PM has not been deaf to such criticisms and there was definitely a shift in tone and language from just one week ago. Even though the government won’t call its latest messaging “advice”, it wants to make clear what it sees as the better way to behave, while insisting this is no longer a matter of legality or illegality.

The shift in tone was also notable in the implied threat Johnson carried about what would happen if the public proved they couldn’t be trusted to listen to his entreaties: the return of some kind of lockdown.

Having said in February that his roadmap was “cautious but irreversible”, the PM tried a bit of revisionist history of his own. “I hope that the roadmap is irreversible - we’ve always said that we hope that it will be irreversible - but in order to have an irreversible roadmap, we also said it’s got to be a cautious approach,” he told the briefing. It was the audacity of hope, Johnson style.

In fact, this not a willed triumph of hope over expectation, it’s both hope and expectation yoked together as pandemic policy. The only problem is that whereas lockdown can be used to predict the Covid curve, relying on consistent public conduct in unlockdown is very much an uncertain science. On some of Sage’s more scary modelling, we could end up with “at least” 1,000 hospitalisations a day and upto 200 deaths a day.

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty gave the PM valuable backing for the idea of some kind of easing of restrictions next week. There is no clear evidence that a further delay was going to make a difference, he said, before adding the crucial caveat “what is going to make a difference is going slowly”.

But when Whitty then said the public should “avoid unnecessary meetings”, it begged the question how they should sort what was necessary from unnecessary.

In some ways the most telling remark was from Sir Patrick Vallance, when he all but confirmed the Whitehall whispers that a form of “hybrid immunity” (from those vaccinated and those infected), was now unofficial policy. Just don’t call it “herd immunity”.

Vallance said: “We are on track to have significant levels of immunity that will really impede the ability of this virus to transmit and cause damage. And that will bring the possibility that future big waves would go at that point.” Which is perhaps the cheeriest uncheery thing anyone has said at these briefings for quite some time.

There is certainly some force in the government’s argument that July 19 is a valid pivot point given the school holidays and looming winter. It can be used to slowly restore businesses and jobs and hospital waiting lists that have all suffered in lockdown. But briefing some newspapers “Freedom Day” rhetoric while urging continued caution is a tricky game to play.

The PM’s new soundbites about caution may well be heard by much of the public. But with the Commons itself sending the most damaging message of all (one rule for them, one for the rest) by allowing MPs to ditch masks while forcing staff to wear them, the dangers are obvious. Shop and tube staff don’t enforce mask wearing as it is, imagine the arguments once refuseniks get a legal licence next week.

When he emerged from hospital last year after his own bout of Covid last April, the PM declared: “If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.”

The difficulty is that his own mixed messaging has turned his public health policy into a half-Nelson, the wrestling move that can be overturned by a determined opponent. As Horatio looks down Whitehall towards Downing Street with one eye, there’s an uneasy feeling among MPs and ministers about the unlockdown gamble.

And the real half-Nelson may be a feeling that while the public are being left to do their duty, the PM is somehow shirking his. Let’s hope (there’s that word again) his message of encouraged caution works.