Boris Johnson’s lockdown road map fails to change England’s bleak course: Andrew Vine

HAVE any of us been less than alert since this crisis engulfed the country and turned our lives upside down?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes a morning walk in St James's Park in London. Picture: PA Wire

On the contrary, everybody I know has developed a heightened awareness of risk, becoming scrupulous about frequent hand-washing, observing social distancing and avoiding at all costs any situation that might expose them to coronavirus.

So for the Prime Minister to tell us that staying alert is the country’s new weapon for beating the epidemic sounds to me, at best, stating the bleeding obvious, and at worst pretty redundant.

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We needed a road map out of all this, but instead all Boris Johnson has given us is a vague direction of travel, akin to the sort of stranger who when asked for directions airily waves a hand and says: “It’s over there somewhere.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus (COVID-19) from 10 Downing Street, London. Photo: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

Nothing in what he said to the nation on Sunday night, or the rounds of ministers on television and radio yesterday, dispelled the impression of a Government attempting to play catch-up for mistakes that should not have been made and resulted in Britain suffering Europe’s worst death toll from Covid-19.

Allowing people out from tomorrow to exercise as they choose, play golf or visit a garden centre may have freed the police of the near-impossible task of trying to enforce lockdown rules – which is welcome – but there remains a disturbing vagueness over when and how the country can get back to work and its children to school.

A system of alerts and a new slogan don’t amount to a road map, more an exercise in image-management on the part of a Government which appears to be making up policy as it goes along. Nor does operating in an atmosphere of discord with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which should have been sorted out so that there is a united front, help in boosting the national effort to come through this intensely difficult period.

Employers don’t know for sure whether they should be attempting to reopen workplaces, and their employees have little clue if they should be returning or staying at home. And even though both want to get back to work as quickly as possible in order to save companies and jobs, how are they to do so, given the uncertainties over safe capacities on public transport?

For countless numbers in our region and beyond, walking or cycling to workplaces is simply impractical. This lack of clarity in how the country should be moving forward risks aggravating the damage that the economy is inevitably going to suffer because of the pandemic.

A few weeks ago, it was possible to believe that Boris Johnson, the man who always saw himself as heir to Winston Churchill, had arrived at his own finest hour when faced with an unprecedented crisis. He looked and sounded purposeful about tackling the pandemic, and appeared to have a plan to get Britain through it with the least loss of life and the minimum of harm to livelihoods. It is impossible to believe that now. The abysmal lack of protective equipment for medical staff and an absence of Government preparations for a pandemic would have been enough in themselves to shatter the impression of competence.

But add to that the catastrophe that has been allowed to engulf care homes for the elderly, abrupt policy changes such as the abandonment of testing only for it then to be resumed, and a failure to stem the tide of millions of air passengers coming into Britain without being tested, and this looks like a litany of failure.

Nor do reports that the Prime Minister was absent from Cobra emergency meetings early in the year when the global pandemic was in its early stages do anything except reinforce the impression of a lack of urgency at a crucial point. There has been no adequate admission of these failures by Mr Johnson, still less any apology. Instead, there has been bluster about how well Britain has handled the crisis.

If more than 30,000 people dead is doing well, what must failure look like? The Prime Minister looks unwell, suggesting that his own bout with coronavirus has taken much more out of him than publicly acknowledged, and he deserves sympathy for that. But such sympathy cannot extend to his failures of leadership.

Mr Johnson’s principal talent has always been as a great persuader of his audience, first over Brexit, and then in the general election when he convinced committed Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives. That talent served him well again in March, when he put the country into lockdown, enabling him to carry the support of an overwhelming majority of the public.

But nothing he said on Sunday night persuaded me he’s got the grip he should have on this crisis, as opposed to being buffeted by events and scrambling to repair the damage done by avoidable failings. I suspect millions of others feel the same.

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James Mitchinson