The mood has changed – just as the government strategy for dealing with coronavirus has changed, although No 10 won’t acknowledge that. It is actually employing spin at this time of crisis, pushing the line that the social distancing measures newly encouraged by Boris Johnson represent a change in pace rather than approach.
But it could not be clearer from reading the report by a group of scientists advising the government that ‘mitigation’ – i.e. slowing the spread – has only just been found to be unfeasible, and that ‘suppression’ must be pursued instead. It says explicitly that “this conclusion has only been reached in the last few days”. This is not about playing the blame game: identifying where things have gone wrong is crucial, and the government’s handling of Covid-19 has gone badly wrong. The editor of The Lancet says: “We have wasted seven weeks. This crisis was entirely preventable.”
The mood has changed as we’re now allowed to scrutinise government decisions – there had been suggestions previously that to do so would be unpatriotic, or ‘armchair expert’ behaviour – after the Prime Minister gifted us with a press conference that was stunningly poor. The key messages were barely discernible among the waffle. The advice for over-70s and/or those with an underlying health condition was confusing. Gatherings are banned, but parliament and schools remain open. The importance of testing was stressed, but they have only just restricted it such that even NHS staff are not being tested. The most helpful communication was the full guidance in writing, which you can find here.
The most tonally wrong statement during the press conference was perhaps when Boris Johnson said he saw no reason that the economy should not come “roaring back” after the decline of coronavirus. Not only was this inappropriate while talking about “hopefully” keeping deaths down to tens of thousands, but it was also insulting taken with the announcements he made.
The Prime Minister, who is supposed to lead ‘the party of business’, advised everyone to stay away from pubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas. Yet he did not order those businesses to close. Labour’s Tracy Brabin noted in response that “the Tories seem to be prioritising the needs of the insurance industry”. Without clear instructions from the government, businesses are unable to claim insurance and left to go bankrupt.
With the Budget from last week already seriously outdated, Rishi Sunak will be taking part in the press conference today. But will the Chancellor take the bold action required? French President Emmanuel Macron told his country – in a remarkably clear message that Johnson should consider emulating – that “nous sommes en guerre” (we are at war). He unveiled a €300m fund for businesses and suspended their rent and utilities payments. Sweden has guaranteed laid-off workers 90% of their income. Spain has nationalised private hospitals. As John McDonnell says: “There must be no small measures.”Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.