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“A leader is a dealer in hope,” Napoleon once said. Boris Johnson certainly fits that description and his latest plan to liberate the UK from its remaining coronavirus restrictions was stuffed full of optimism. “It is my strong and sincere hope,” he told the No.10 press conference, that the virus will be under such strong control that the country could see “a significant return to normality” from November.
The long list of liberations included visiting indoor theatres, football matches, conferences, bigger wedding receptions, you name it. But it was in the Q&A that the PM came out with the most startling ambition of all: “By November at the earliest...it may conceivably be possible to move away from the social distancing measures, from the 1m rule.”
Given this wasn’t in his original speech, could Johnson have been freelancing again, riffing from the script as his innate enthusiasm for positive news overtook him, and the science? Well, the new ‘Next Chapter’ paper makes clear that “removing the need to distance people” would only be considered if prevalence of the Covid-19 “falls very significantly”. That sombrero covid curve needs to be not just squashed but totally flat, it appears.
Was the PM deluding himself, or the nation? Funnily enough, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty weren’t on hand to give an instant verdict (will we ever again see the ‘Three Amigos’ on the same platform?) But it didn’t take long, as within hours both men were telling the Lords science committee just how crucial social distancing would be for the foreseeable future.
“The reality is distancing remains an important part of this mix,” Whitty said. “It has not gone away. [They] need to continue for a long period of time.” Vallance added that “social distancing and hygiene measures will be necessary” given it was “highly likely” the virus would return. In fact, he stressed it was just a matter of when, not if, covid “comes back in force” in several waves.
And that’s where the new blueprint actually seems to contradict itself. It talks about total liberation from November at the earliest, but then adds the government is preparing to be “as ready as possible for the risk of a resurgence in the virus between November and March”.
It suggests that even if the “optimal scenario” doesn’t happen, “we hope [that word again] we will see a return towards normality in spring 2021”. As it happened, a new Sage paper out today warned it is not possible “to return to a ‘pre-Covid’ normality”, without almost impossible levels of contact tracing and covid security effectiveness.
The last unlockdown strategy paper published in May actually said that “hope is not a plan”. But there seems to be a lot of finger-crossing in the latest blueprint. Perhaps the most optimistic is the assertion buried within it that “we will introduce an app” that could allow digital contact tracing. More concrete was a plan to introduce “backward” contact tracing for any particular outbreak, seen by many as long overdue.
No Johnson announcement is complete without a new target these days (we are a long way from his claim in May that he was “forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines”) and his aim for a daily antigen testing capacity of half a million tests by the end of October was a big new ambition. That does fit however with Vallance’s own warning that such a scale of testing was vital to cope with both flu and covid symptoms.
The emphasis on test and trace will be welcomed by many, though there are still real problems with the current scheme failing to contact nearly a quarter of people who test positive. Although Matt Hancock has long refused to rule out compulsion, I understand that such a drastic step simply will not happen.
Forcing compliance with the system is seen as a major deterrent to the vulnerable groups who are most likely to get the virus, and there are fears it would mean more people just don’t take a test when they get symptoms - a nightmare scenario for all of us.
So instead of the stick, the carrot is being considered. Special financial support for people hit by local outbreaks is now “on the table”. Labour’s Keir Starmer and Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Savile-Roberts have been pushing for extra cash help and with the PM’s focus now on local lockdowns as the main weapon against the virus, maybe he is listening.
Everyone will be hoping the UK does indeed achieve the best case scenario set out today, but the PM is undeniably taking a gamble. The prize is him finally getting a grip of the crisis and making the country more resilient for the inevitable second wave. If he gets any bit of it wrong, he will have to reimpose restrictions and take the political damage. A new poll analysis by Peter Kellner today suggests Red Wall voters have already moved back to Labour.
All that talk about “planning for the worst” but hoping for the best, will be keenly tested this winter. The problem is that each day he looks more distant from his scientific advisers, the more personal the political risk becomes. But judging by today, it looks like Johnson has adopted one more Napoleonic motto: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”
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Friday Cheat Sheet
Councils in England will get new powers from Saturday to force owners to shut pubs, cafes, shops and restaurants in areas hit by coronavirus outbreaks.
Boris Johnson backed off moves to tell those working at home to go into work, saying it would be up to employers and staff to discuss the issue.
Theatres said that they were still unlikely to reopen from August 1 as social distancing would make the move unviable.
Matt Hancock ordered an urgent review of how Public Health England compiles its daily count of Covid-19 deaths after Oxford University academics highlighted that its figures record deaths of anyone who has previously tested positive for coronavirus.
Captain Tom Moore has been knighted by the Queen for his outstanding achievement of raising almost £33m for the NHS.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey told the BBC that speculation about a cabinet reshuffle this autumn risks “disrupting” the work of her department.
What I’m Reading
The Adults In The Room: How The Treasury Tackled Covid - New Statesman
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.