Boris Johnson’s U-Turn on Lockdown Buys Him Little Time

Here we go again. On Saturday, Boris Johnson abandoned his policy of whack-a-mole and joined a growing list of other governments in announcing a national lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

Politically, it’s a near impossible situation. Johnson is accused from one side of having acted too late and from another of having gone too far. The public want to know whether a four-week lockdown is going to turn into a four-month one, and at what cost — and this he can’t reliably answer.

Even the Catholic bishops of England and Wales took the highly unusual step of speaking up to demand the government produce the evidence behind the decision to ban communal worship. Their broader point was: Transparency builds trust. “In requiring this sacrifice, the government has a profound responsibility to show why it has taken particular decisions. Not doing so risks eroding the unity we need as we enter a most difficult period for our country,” they said in a statement.

From a policy perspective, it’s not clear Johnson had any other choice. He rejected a national lockdown when it was suggested by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies back in September, opting instead for regional measures in the hopes of limiting the economic damage. The immediate cause for the U-turn was modeling showing that if no action was taken, deaths could reach 4,000 a day and the National Health Service could be overwhelmed in weeks. This was well over the previous “reasonable worst case” scenario. (Already hospital admissions in around 10 areas have exceeded the peak of the first wave.)

“The vote in the House of Commons is a choice between the lesser of two evils,” said Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker, an arch-Brexiter who has been opposed to lockdowns. “It is not clear which is the greater and most certain evil: overwhelming the NHS or the damage to our economy.”

Johnson has rejected the implied trade-off. The case for action is both medical and moral, Johnson said. He even revived the successful slogan of the first lockdown: “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.” This time, however, it is a much harder sell.

The public is weary and less compliant, trust has declined and plenty in Johnson’s own party want him to tack to Sweden’s initial laissez-faire approach. By keeping schools open and also insisting that non-Covid NHS capacity be maintained, Johnson is trying to strike a better balance this time. But if infection rates drop too slowly over the next four weeks, he may be stuck having to announce an extension. Opposition will reach a fever pitch as Christmas approaches.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who echoed government scientists in calling for a national circuit-breaker weeks ago, may take full advantage of Johnson’s U-turn, but he backs the strategy. Starmer has warned, however, that the government shouldn’t pretend Christmas is going to be “normal in any sense of the word.” Sadly, he’s probably right, though the intention may be to bait Johnson into promising a firm deadline only to later be forced to break it.

The official opposition is the least of Johnson’s problems though. Many of the new Tory MPs from the hardest hit north of the country have grown impatient with the unpopular local lockdown measures. They’ve christened their caucus the Northern Research Group in a deliberate echo of the European Research Group whose pressure forced the governments of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson to take a hard line on Brexit.

There are also rumblings from the traditional (quasi-libertarian) wing of the Tory Party, which argues that lockdowns cause widespread economic harm with consequences for public health. “Let us be very clear. There has been much talk of circuit breakers, but what was announced on Saturday night was a business breaker,” wrote former party leader Iain Duncan Smith in the Telegraph.

As if that weren’t enough, Brexit campaigner (and sometimes Donald Trump warm-up act) Nigel Farage is now turning his defunct Brexit Party into a new anti-lockdown party, to be called Reform UK. Assuming Britain’s Electoral Commission approves, Farage will be back in business in time to contest thousands of seats in local councils in May. Farage may have failed to win any seats in Parliament with the Brexit Party, but his presence was threatening enough to force the Conservatives to take a hard line on Brexit. Indeed, it was largely fear that his UK Independence Party would usurp Tory seats that compelled former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to offer the 2016 referendum on European Union membership.  

Meanwhile, the next four weeks won’t solve anything, but they do buy Johnson a little time. The government failed to use the last lockdown to build sufficient testing, tracing and isolating capacity. Johnson’s hope is obviously for a vaccine and better treatments to come through, but, in what may be one of the last arrows in his quiver, he’s now promising mass testing, including the use of rapid diagnostic tests, to facilitate a reopening of the economy. Let’s hope this time he hits his mark.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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