The prime minister is not a careful driver. He says he is squeezing the brake pedal; England is experiencing whiplash. In less than 24 hours, it has seen an abrupt halt and a U-turn on the relaxation of coronavirus rules. On Thursday night, the government imposed new restrictions on 4 million people across Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire, preventing them from socialising with other households. Then, at noon on Friday, the prime minister announced a partial postponement of the national loosening scheduled for Saturday. Permission for indoor performances, bowling alley reopenings and close-up treatments at beauty salons was suspended until at least 15 August. From 8 August, people will also be obliged to wear masks in indoor venues such as museums, as well as shops.
The changes follow last weekend’s decision to impose quarantine on people returning from Spain with only a few hours’ notice. For many people, these abrupt and mostly poorly communicated changes have been disruptive and damaging, costing them much-needed wages and the chance to see loved ones – especially upsetting for Muslim families poised to celebrate Eid together.
Anger is understandable. But these shifts are necessary as infections rise again. It is thought that one in 1,500 people now have Covid-19, compared with one in 2,000 four weeks ago. We have seen the costs of a leisurely response: people pay with their lives. Thanks to the government’s tardiness in imposing lockdown, England had the highest excess death levels in Europe by the end of May. The real problem is not the tightening of restrictions but the premature rush to relaxation on many fronts which preceded it, and the message sent by Mr Johnson’s foolhardy prediction that things might be back to normal, without even distancing, by Christmas. Indeed, it is appalling that the government is pressing ahead with suspending the shielding programme, effectively forcing vulnerable people back to work. Its decision to urge people back to workplaces from Saturday is questionable at best, especially given the outbreaks we have seen in such locations.
Strikingly, while Mr Johnson focused on personal responsibility – handwashing, distancing, mask wearing, and testing and self-isolating if symptomatic – the chief medical officer warned that the country is reaching the limits of relaxation. If we want to do more of some things we may have to do less of others, Chris Whitty said, citing schools as a priority: “The idea we can open everything up and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.”
There is a whiff of the government blaming the public here. People should stick by the rules, as many are doing. But it is entirely understandable if they are now confused about what those rules are, and if they concluded from the prime minister’s boosterism that life was essentially getting back to normal. More noxious still would be singling out vulnerable communities. The high death rate in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities reflects entrenched inequalities; the head of the British Medical Association has suggested that discrimination may also play a part. Yet when invited to disown comments from one of his MPs blaming BAME communities for the “vast majority” of lockdown breaches, Mr Johnson did not do so, saying only that everyone should comply with guidance. This failure further undermines what sense of national unity has survived his refusal to remove his adviser, Dominic Cummings, over his trips to and around Durham at the height of lockdown. Faced with a road this bumpy, it would be comforting if we had more confidence in the man at the wheel.