Chilling prognosis offered cold comfort for Johnson's top quad


Morgues in converted ice rinks, security guards outside overwhelmed hospitals to turn patients away, even municipal mass graves.

When Boris Johnson’s “quad” of senior ministers met on Friday, they were presented with a chilling prognosis of what would happen if they failed to take draconian action.

As they “walked down the path” of what would happen on current scientific projections, as one official put it, the opposition of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who had feared the devastating economic consequences of another lockdown, melted away.

And the prime minister agreed with lockdown advocates Michael Gove and Matt Hancock that the government’s only acceptable course was to reinstate the “Stay at Home” order of March.

Significant exceptions, including the government’s determination to keep schools open, mean this latest lockdown will be less draconian than in the spring.


Michael Gove says England’s Covid-19 lockdown could be extended – video

But just as in March, Johnson and his colleagues will face the accusation that they have put many lives at risk by acting too late.

The prime minister’s extreme discomfort will only be exacerbated by the fact that he was arguing so enthusiastically against a nationwide lockdown less than a fortnight ago – when he reassured the public his intention was not to “lock the whole place down from John o’ Groats to Lands’ End. Turn the lights out, shut up shop”.

Meanwhile, Downing Street expended precious political capital in newly-gained seats across the north-west by fighting a bitter battle with the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, over financial support in tier 3 areas.

That row was in effect rendered irrelevant on Saturday, when Sunak extended the furlough scheme – which pays 80% of wages – across the country for another month.

Meanwhile, a Number 10 operation that prides itself on slick communications, replacing leaky special advisers with hand-picked allies and banning gossipy lunches with Westminster hacks, faced the humiliation of seeing its plans emerge publicly – in a series of tweets from Robert Peston – just minutes after the meeting broke up.

Robert Peston
(@Peston)

These are the measures to be announced by the PM at 5, as I understand it. They will last 2 December. And they are, In effect, a new “Tier 4” that will be imposed for a month initially to the whole of England. 1) All pubs and restaurants to close, though takeaways…


October 31, 2020

The comprehensive leak infuriated Conservative MPs and led to an apologetic letter from Johnson to his own party, and Saturday’s hastily-convened press conference, which slipped by more than two hours as the finishing touches were made.

Downing Street insiders joked bleakly on Sunday that they had beaten Strictly Come Dancing in the Saturday night TV ratings, netting 4m more viewers than the family favourite, as the public tuned in to see the depressing details of what November would hold.

Johnson’s allies argue that they couldn’t have won the argument about the need for a nationwide lockdown a month or so ago, when the government’s scientific advisers first recommended it.

“At that point, do you take the public with you?,” said one. “Do you take parliament with you? Do you take the media with you? I think the answers to those questions is probably no, a month ago.”

“There was huge scepticism,” said the aide, suggesting the public may not have abided by a lockdown at that time. “Ultimately, you govern by consensus,” they added.

But many in Johnson’s own party were this weekend raging at what they see as the lack of grip shown by Downing Street – and the government’s failure to provide a clear route out of the crisis.

The prime minister’s backbench critics fall into three groups. A hard core of libertarian Conservative MPs, such as Desmond Swayne, of New Forest West, regard draconian restrictions of the kind announced on Saturday as an authoritarian outrage – an infringement of personal freedom.

UK: number of new coronavirus cases per day
UK: number of new coronavirus cases per day

A much wider group have profound worries about the economic and social impact of the new rules, with many citing the concerns of desperate business-owners in their constituencies.

And a third cohort say they will grudgingly support the lockdown in the face of the bleak epidemiological outlook; but are absolutely despairing about the government’s handling of the past few weeks – and the pandemic more broadly.

One said their response to Johnson’s announcement was “not printable in a family newspaper”.

Another that they could only support the new restrictions if the government pledges to fix the strugglingtest-and-trace system.

Many fear the Tories’ reputation for hard-headed competence, already threatened by three years of Brexit chaos, has been obliterated by Johnson’s zig-zag approach to tackling the virus, from “stay at home,” to “eat out to help out” and back again.

Labour’s support will ensure the new lockdown rules pass when they are voted on in the House of Commons on Wednesday, even if there is a significant rebellion on the government side.

But Keir Starmer called for a “circuit breaker” lockdown three weeks ago, and he and his front bench will also continue to hammer home the message that Johnson’s “dithering” has cost lives and livelihoods – a message it may become increasingly hard to bat away by dismissing him jokily as “captain hindsight”.





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