On Friday evening, after one of the most extraordinary weeks in British history, a cabinet minister was among those trying to compute the scale of the government’s response to the coronavirus threat. In the end, he was forced to conclude: “We’ve just nationalised the economy.”
Given that Boris Johnson had just ordered every pub, restaurant, cafe and gym to shut its doors, shortly before his relatively new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced the state would begin to pay a huge chunk of the nation’s wages, the remark seemed apt. The battle to control the coronavirus has remodelled Britain’s way of life – and bulldozed political ideologies in the process – in just a few days.
A week ago, Whitehall officials were convinced the British response of holding off from drastic measures was the right one. By Friday, entire industries had been closed and direct pay for the nation’s worried employees was given approval while the government had already included urgent advice about social distancing to slow the virus, a £330bn business-loans package and the small matter of closing the nation’s schools for the first time in history.
The frenzy of activity has inevitably left questions over the government’s strategy, whether mistakes were made and precious time was lost – and how a prime minister who won office for his crowd-pleasing persona rather than his command of detail will cope when confronted with such a crisis. “It is a big challenge for him. During the leadership election the question was always, ‘he’s good on telly, can he be a prime minister?’ We’re going to test that,” said one minister.
Johnson has always been at pains to insist he has followed the evidence at every turn. Yet it is that commitment that appeared to precipitate last week’s abrupt change of course. The initial stated desire to delay the peak of the virus and allow the build-up of “herd immunity” among the population came up against new evidence – a report by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that the crisis was developing more quickly than thought, and the arrival on Monday of a jaw-dropping analysis by Imperial College London that “social distancing” by the whole population was essential to bringing down deaths from 250,000 to possibly a few thousand.
The shift has been widely described as a U-turn and last week led to some fairly hefty criticism about ministers’ anti-Covid-19 policies.
Why did we stick to mitigation when we should have gone straight to suppression of the virus?
In fact, the government knew about these two scenarios for weeks but chose the less severe path until the most recent data showed this was not going to work. The problem is that lots of uncertainties underpin all the mathematical models that are being deployed to understand Covid-19, says Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University. “There are also huge uncertainties about the social behaviour of people and about the way groups will respond to different controls being imposed on them.”
Armed with the new evidence, the prime minister used his first daily press conference on Monday to announce “a very substantial change in the way that we want people to live their lives”. He urged everyone not to go to pubs and theatres, to work from home if they could, and to stop non-essential travel.
Other more serious measures were signposted, but not announced – and the prime minister appeared to be offering advice, not orders.
So began a week of communications challenges for Johnson, with every unprecedented measure leading to more questions about what they meant in practice. On Tuesday, Sunak unveiled loans to businesses to help them through. But why only loans? And what of employees and the self-employed?
On Wednesday came the schools closure for all but “key workers”. So how would students get to university – and who was a key worker? Meanwhile, rumours of a lockdown in London had begun to circulate and refused to go away.
It was on Thursday, however, that Johnson’s grip was really tested, as the case numbers grew and the terrible toll the disease was wreaking on Italy became ever more apparent. By now, unease was sweeping the Tory benches over the need for a huge rescue package for workers. A sign of the concerns emerged when Greg Clark, the former business secretary known for his caution in office, said the “nation should pay wages” to workers. Meanwhile, critics such as former Tory minister and independent London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart still maintained the government’s strategy was wrong. “They are still fundamentally of the view that it is neither practical nor desirable to suppress the virus,” he said on Thursday. “This is the very last chance now of following the policy of suppression. A suppression strategy involves much more radical action – not just isolating the elderly, it’s isolating everybody It’s shutting all schools and universities immediately. It’s shutting all pubs, clubs, gyms. The most prudent move would be to impose isolation on the whole country and start testing vigorously.” Others privately agreed. One Tory MP in London, where the virus is most widespread, said: “We do have to look at the messaging around bars and restaurants staying open and people being told to keep out. It’s one or the other. We should close them.”
At that evening’s press conference, Johnson seemed frustrated to be appearing again. “I don’t want to weary you with these occasions,” he told reporters, in an attempt at levity that appeared to reveal his annoyance. He began by talking about “turning the tide within 12 weeks”, striking an optimistic tone that he regards as a trademark. Yet by the end of the appearance, he had conceded: “I cannot tell you by the end of June we will be on a downward slope.” The next day, newly published scientific advice suggested strict social distancing measures could be dialled up and down, but would be needed for “most of a year”.
Amid the uncertainty, the government has also stubbornly remained attached to the idea that Britain might end the Brexit transition period at the end of the year, despite all the evidence – and widespread acceptance in Whitehall – that the period will have to be extended. “No senior minister or top official on the other side is spending serious time on this issue now,” says Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s widely respected former EU ambassador. “Rightly so. The real question for government though is whether, at a time when they are rightly focussed on trying to do everything possible to ensure that good firms survive this unprecedented crisis, they want senior people in companies battling to survive, to be spending a lot of time contingency landing for “no deal” Brexit nine months from now. Is that a sensible use of corporate leaders’ time right now?”
So, was Johnson, who so admires Sir Winston Churchill, misjudging his response in the country’s hour of need? Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, has concerns. “I thought the bizarre part of the communications was to say ‘we’re telling you to do this. We might have to do another thing, but you don’t need to yet’. That trailing of things was difficult. I do think it’s unacceptable to put information out under “Downing St sources”. This is just too important for that. No 10 needs to be straight with the communications. This is not a time to be playing games with messaging.”
However, the size and speed of the challenge means that many in Whitehall remain sympathetic and willing to give Johnson leeway. “You have to act first and work through the implications,” says one Tory MP who is not a natural Johnson supporter. “The school closures decision was a classic of that. How will people get to university? We’ll figure it out. Who are key workers? We’ll work it out. I’m afraid the decisions have to be made. We don’t have the luxury of mapping it all out.”
When Johnson and Sunak announced the enforced closure of pubs, clubs, and restaurants and leisure facilities on Friday evening, along with a pledge to pay 80% of workers’ wages up to £2,500 a month, many Tories were satisfied thatthe UK was acting in line with other nations. Even more may be needed. Sunak has yet to heed calls for huge subsidies to transport companies suffering from a collapse in passenger numbers. Bus companies have asked for a £1bn bailout while airlines have asked for a £7bn package – in part to pay staff to stay at home. Meanwhile, groups representing the self-employed said they were the most obvious omission from the latest package of measures announced by Sunak. The 5.2 million army of self-employed and contract workers can access sickness benefit and universal credit, but will not benefit from the state pay offer.
As one minister put it, the question of “what the fuck happens after” is yet to be properly asked, never mind answered. “The economy will change. The nation will change. Our habits will change. But that’s for another day.” So how long can British people remain in lockdown as uncertainties grow over food supplies, the economy, jobs and education? Relax the draconian measures and cases will start to rise again, threatening again to overwhelm the NHS. Neil Ferguson, the academic who led the Imperial research, believes current policies “will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccines are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.” Woolhouse is sceptical. “We need an exit strategy from this epidemic and I would not dignify the expectation of developing a vaccine as a strategy. It is a hope, no more than that.”
However, there are other reasons for optimism. As China eases its national lockdown, its experience may inform British moves to follow suit. In addition, as time passes, increased NHS capacity could allow further relaxation in social distancing. The complex situation is summed up by Professor Jimmy Whitworth at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
“This disease is going to stick with us for a long time. It is going to be an experience that none of us have had before in our lifetimes.”