As well as consternation from his own MPs over the reach of Covid curbs, Boris Johnson’s government is facing a perhaps more alarming foe ahead of winter – usually-friendly newspapers.
Titles such as the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail are devoting increasing space in their comment sections to writers not only bemoaning a lack of freedoms but questioning whether distancing measures are even effective.
This has increasingly spilled over into news coverage of public health voices like Oxford University’s Sunetra Gupta, one of the leading lights behind a call to focus more on herd immunity among young people, whose stance has been criticised by others in the field.
On Thursday it felt as if this view had burst into the mainstream of coverage among newspapers generally sympathetic to the government.
Leading the charge was the Mail, which in a photo-heavy front page reminiscent of the paper’s infamous 2016 “Enemies of the People” splash, condemning three judges over a Brexit ruling, took aim at Johnson and his chief medical and scientific advisers, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance.
Citing developments including a British Medical Journal study suggesting lockdown could end up costing more lives than herd immunity would have, the page featured Whitty, Johnson and Vallance with hands over their ears, eyes and mouth respectively. “So when will they listen?” boomed the headline.
The Telegraph’s front page also featured a story on the study, carried out by academics at Edinburgh university. Inside, the main editorial opinion piece was headlined: “Scientists say the government’s Covid strategy is wrong – so why does it persist?” – perhaps an over-simplified view given very many other scientists do not agree, and assumptions underlying the study make its findings more nuanced.
The government’s coronavirus strategy is “reaching a watershed moment”, the paper said, noting that Labour appeared set to vote against the current 10pm closing time for pubs, the subject of another front page story. On Thursday, it turned out that Labour would not do this.
The Sun used its front page to warn that Johnson faced a “revolt from furious MPs” on further lockdown measures in the north of England.
Officials in No 10 can point to polls showing consistently strong support for restrictions to curb the spread of Covid, but will be aware that such stories will only add to the difficulties of what could be a long winter.
Asked about the coverage, Johnson’s spokesman said: “We live in a liberal democracy and you would fully expect open debate on these matters.”
He added: “You’ve heard an acknowledgement from the prime minister that we are making significant impositions into people’s lives, and that’s obviously been the case for more than six months now. He fully understands how frustrating that must be.
“But you’ve also heard him set out that we’re facing a difficult few months ahead of us, as we go into winter, and it’s important that while people are understandably frustrated they do continue to abide by the rules.”