Boris Johnson had previously called it “a nuclear deterrent”, warning that to impose a second national lockdown to tackle Covid-19 would be a “disaster” and would inflict “misery” on the public. But on Saturday he hit the red button.
The decision, taken at a bleak cabinet meeting on Saturday lunchtime, will cause further economic destruction, while the prime minister was left struggling to contain the political fallout among Conservative MPs.
One Tory MP said the mood on the Conservative benches was “grim”, while another said the response among colleagues to the idea of a month-long national lockdown in England was “nuclear”.
Five weeks after Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers called for an immediate “circuit breaker” lockdown — and a fortnight after Labour backed the idea — the prime minister finally bowed to the merciless reality of the pandemic.
One cabinet minister said the decision to put the whole of England into a second lockdown was taken by “consensus” after new evidence suggested the NHS would be overwhelmed by early December.
But the mood among Mr Johnson’s cabinet, gathered for a Zoom call on Saturday, was said one by one member to be “dismay”. The economic costs are piling up, so too is the political damage.
Although Mr Johnson prefers to talk about the introduction of “tougher national measures” on Thursday, the new policy is in reality the circuit-breaker that he and his fellow ministers previously denounced.
Only a day earlier, Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, said: “In areas where the virus is not picking up, people would feel it was not only counterproductive or ineffective but desperately unfair for measures to be imposed across the board.”
Mr Johnson and party whips spent Saturday afternoon attempting to placate Conservative MPs who share Mr Raab’s scepticism and fear that the policy cure for Covid could be worse than the disease.
Steve Baker, former Brexit minister, is among those who fear the economic and wider health consequences of the policy. “Colleagues have a great many questions due to the costs involved,” he said.
Mr Johnson’s planned press conference to announce the new policy, scheduled initially for 4pm, was repeatedly delayed as the prime minister and fellow ministers attempted to win over Tory MPs to back the policy.
The House of Commons will vote on the national lockdown on Wednesday and Mr Johnson will be hoping that anger among Tory MPs has dissipated by then. “The mood is one of depression,” said one former minister.
While Mr Johnson can expect Labour support — he has largely adopted Keir Starmer’s policy — a Tory rebellion would further weaken the prime minister’s position.
Rishi Sunak was seen by Tory MPs as their bulwark against a tougher national restrictions, but the chancellor ultimately bowed to warnings from Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, that a health catastrophe was approaching.
Mr Sunak was left scurrying to produce the latest of several upgrades to his “winter economic plan” — set out on September 24 — to increase furlough support during the lockdown.
The chancellor’s allies said there had been a “collective” decision to impose the lockdown, but Mr Sunak was lying low and his Twitter feed spoke about “the PM’s announcement on further restrictions across the country”.
Mr Sunak had been the leading advocate of the “balanced approach” which saw the government attempt to contain the virus using a series of regional lockdowns, but that strategy is now in tatters.
For weeks Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak ratcheted up their “regional” approach to tackling the virus — and the economic support needed to sustain the policy — but in the end Covid-19 overwhelmed it.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats were quick to argue that Mr Johnson should have accepted reality — and scientific advice — earlier, but the prime minister said he still “passionately believed” it was right to try the regional approach.
In an attempt to limit the economic damage, Mr Sunak insisted the new lockdown must be time limited — it is scheduled to end on December 2 — making it less open-ended than the first lockdown introduced on March 23.
But the cabinet also agreed that the new tough lockdown measures could be retained as part of a “regional approach” after December 2, under a newly-created “tier 4”, if infection rates remained high.
Mr Johnson said that he hoped families would be able to spend time together at Christmas, but he acknowledged the sombre reality: “Christmas is going to be different this year, perhaps very different.”