It’s not been a great week for Boris Johnson and his government. The testing target of 100,000 per day hasn’t been reached for the last eight days, we became the worst affected country in Europe in terms of deaths, and ordered PPE from Turkey that was unusable. We finished Friday off with the tabloids speculating that Monday would mark the end of the lockdown. What the country needed was reassurance that there was a plan. What we got last night was anything but.
In the build-up to the speech the government had changed its advice from ‘Stay At Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. This caused so much confusion that they had to release a statement saying that ‘Stay Alert’ still meant ‘Stay At Home’, begging the question why the message was changed in the first place. Another example of what at times seems like a very deliberate smoke screen of misinformation.
Boris Johnson announced a new Covid-19 Alert System that would range from 1 to 5 with 5 being the worst (danger of second peak) and 1 being the best (the virus is gone). The rate of R number will determine how strict the lockdown continues to be, so if the R number goes above 1 then the lockdown will be tightened, and vice versa.
On the lockdown itself Johnson was adamant that: ‘This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week’. So the tabloids were wrong and stoked up unnecessary optimism.
On people breaking the lockdown, Johnson’s only change will be the raising of fines. His theory likely being that with so many people furloughed or out of work, they won’t want to take the hit.
But he didn’t say people couldn’t gather in parks. No, in a country with the slackest lockdown in Europe and the highest number of deaths, he said you could ‘sit on a bench’. The PM isn’t allowing us to see family members, but he is allowing sunbathing.
If we look at it through the carrot and stick filter, he’s increasing the size of the stick slightly, but also endorsing your consumption of the carrot even though we don’t really deserve it. There’s a danger we may find ourselves choking on a poisoned carrot.
Nothing was said regarding face masks or other face coverings, which is surprising. In my view there should be a rule mandating that you can only go into shops if you are covering your mouth and nose so you can at least catch what you’re exhaling
For workers there was a surprise too. Before, you had to work from home regardless of your occupation. So someone in manufacturing for instance could not go to work. Now however, if you can’t work from home you are actively encouraged to go back to work. A couple of issues here. Firstly, not all businesses are yet kitted out with the necessary social distancing infrastructure to accommodate this change. Secondly, he stipulated that you should avoid using public transport, but didn’t say what one is to do if one relies on commuting. After all, not everyone has access to a car.
So what of the plan?
Yes, the plan.
There isn’t one. Not really. In his own words we are relying on what Johnson described as a ‘first sketch’. This is the kind of language you can expect from a GCSE student starting their art project, not the Prime Minister of the UK in the grip of an aggressive pandemic and no vaccine.
On business though he did have some dates. From June 1 at the earliest, primary schools may be able to reopen and hospitality venues may get the green light from July — still provisional at this stage.
Returning to the new measures for fighting this pandemic (if you can consider them measures). As a country we’re not ready. Still behind on testing, we’re not even consistently reaching a target which Johnson wants doubled by the end of the month to 200,000 tests per day.
We’re clearly also not ready for contact tracing either. Last week a contact tracing app developed by the NHS (the UK was unique in developing its own) was trialled on the Isle of Wight. Just 40 per cent of residents downloaded it as MPs and rights groups criticised the technology for lacking the necessary privacy and protection features. In light of this, a study will be undertaken to assess whether a move to Google or Apple’s technology could be more effective. This marks another blow for the government.
Whilst big cities like London are empty of traffic and people are avoiding the streets, in smaller towns across the country many students have returned for exam month and, like a lot of the public, are flouting lockdown rules.
This raises a bigger question: What is the government’s actual plan? As much as Johnson can bluster and smokescreen using his ally papers, there is clearly a strategy in play.
The government has got to a point where it has realised how big its failings are and that the public want answers. So the new strategy, quite simply, is buying time with minor changes, short-term suggestions, statistical theatre in the daily briefings, and stirring of the pot with friendly journalists.
Like terrible magicians they are trying to make us look away from where the trick is actually happening. But there is no trick, really. Just a confused-looking man on stage, embarrassing himself as his incompetence becomes clearly visible.