Why Boris Johnson Risks 'Too Little, Too Late' On Covid Again

Belgium is being used by Britain as a template for new rules. But a second wave could swamp Johnson's 'light touch' curbs.

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Belgian waffle?

For a man who loves having his cake and eating it, there was something delicious about the timing of Boris Johnson’s latest TV address to the nation on coronavirus. Serving as an hors d’oeuvre for the return of Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off, the PM’s recipe felt awfully familiar: a reheated mix of blithe optimism, cod Churchillian rhetoric and verbal blancmange.

His signature dish included “moonshot” rapid testing and a healthy portion of U-turns (go to the office, no don’t go to the office). But there was a missing ingredient: any sense of regret at failures made earlier this year, or even earlier this month. Had he over egged the pudding of EatOutToHelpOut, the Rule of Six (which relaxes rules for six households) or the back to work drive? We didn’t find out, because no questions were allowed.

‌Perhaps what will stick in the throat of many of his critics was the suggestion that the new curbs would succeed because “we have succeeded before”, as if having one of the world’s worst death tolls from Covid was somehow a footnote rather than a damning indictment of his government.

‌There was even the characteristic dollop of military talk, with the PM saying again that the Army would be deployed as “backfill” to help the police enforce the new rules. This, despite the National Police Chiefs Council saying earlier that “no military involvement is necessary, nor do we anticipate this will be needed”.

‌Still, those warlike allusions were irresistible for the PM. When he said “Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour…” the intended echo was of his great political hero. Sadly, given his indulgence of Dominic Cummings’ own individual rule breaking, he sounded more like a poundshop Winston Churchill.

Bizarrely linking lockdown “breaches” with the UK’s history as a “freedom-loving country” only furthered the impression that Johnson somehow felt an absence of civic duty was not to be condemned, but excused. Which was all the more strange given he had new penalties for breaking existing rules like mask wearing.

‌One real irony is that the UK is taking lessons on Covid from the ‘enemy’ itself, the home of the forces that Johnson has made a career out of attacking. Yes, Belgium is being used by Britain as a template for three key measures unveiled or refined today: the 10pm curfew, the Rule of Six itself, and the ‘work from home’ edict were all pioneered in Brussels and its nearby cities.

‌Belgium did have some success with strict curfews (they went much further than just pubs closing early) and socialising with five others, and that’s what led health secretary Matt Hancock to sing its praises. But the unfortunate fact is that Belgium too has had a sharp increase in cases over the past couple of weeks. Its cases per capita have also been among the highest on the planet.

Belgium did have some success with strict curfews, and that’s what led health secretary Matt Hancock to sing its praises.
Belgium did have some success with strict curfews, and that’s what led health secretary Matt Hancock to sing its praises.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Only today, we learned the EU summit has been postponed a week because European Council President Charles Michel has had to go into self-isolation.

‌Earlier in the Commons, Johnson’s statement to MPs was as undercooked and underwhelming as his TV address. His line about the mental health problems of home isolation being a good reason to go into work seemed made up on the hoof, rather than included in any guidance. His defence of test and trace turned a bizarre claim that the system had “very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission” of the virus. Waffle was the main item on the menu.

‌Crucially, the emphasis on “six months” of new rules, on what he called “tough enforcement” with military support, felt like a distraction from what was ultimately a light-touch response to the September surge. The economic “hawks” in the Cabinet have stopped a genuinely tough move to stop households mixing indoors, or at least to go back to just two households mixing outdoors (which was the case until last Monday, and the BMA wants it to return).

‌While the nation was treated to Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance’s scary presentation yesterday, the Cabinet had a different backdrop. On Saturday, it was “economic advisers” who also delivered a presentation to ministers as well as the scientists. And in a whole new meaning to ‘alternative Sage’, Johnson has been advised in No.10 by lockdown sceptics Prof Carl Heneghan and Prof Sunetra Gupta to give effectively a second opinion.

‌It was noticeable today that at no point was there any attempt to reveal any scientific basis or evidence for the impact on the spread of the virus of either a 10pm curfew or the ‘work from home if you can’ switcheroo. We certainly haven’t been told what impact a ban on mixing households indoors could have, from Sage’s modelling.

‌At least Nicola Sturgeon today created her very own lab experiment on such a tough restriction. If Scotland’s drastic curb (which actually is currently experienced by 14 million people in lockdown areas in the UK) fails, the PM may privately breathe a sigh of relief.

‌Yet if Scotland’s cases and deaths rise slower than England’s, or even fall, there will be huge pressure on Johnson to follow suit - with all the political damage of being seen to have done “too little, too late”, for a second time in the pandemic. For some voters, that really would be a showstopper. And proof they’ve been victim to another Great British fake off, courtesy of their PM.

Quote Of The Day

“The tragic reality of having covid is that your mild cough can be someone else’s death knell.” - Boris Johnson

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Another 4,926 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the UK, the highest daily figure since 7 May. Hospitalisations rose too.

Keir Starmer has declared that Jeremy Corbyn“deserved” to lose the last general election because the public didn’t trust Labour with their security, jobs or their money.

A YouGov snap poll found that 78% of Brits support the new Covid curbs, with 45% saying they should go even further. Yet Labour hasn’t itself called for tougher curbs.

Rishi Sunak is weighing up plans to replace the furlough scheme with German-style wage subsidies, the Guardian reports.

The government has confirmed that it will not allow trans people to change their legal gender via self-identification.

The firm behind last year’s tax credits scandal as well as companies linked to debt collection services are among those who have been handed contact tracing roles by Serco, PoliticsHome revealed.

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