The beginning of August was supposed to mark a psychological turning point – when the British people could begin to believe that their lives were returning to normal. As families prepared to head away on holiday, the government had been clear that its priorities were for schools and universities to reopen in September and for as many people as possible to return to their workplaces by the autumn. As Boris Johnson said a fortnight ago, in a speech in Downing Street, his hope was that there could be a “significant return to normality” by Christmas.
The plan was to move step by careful step and give the impression that it was an orderly process. Pubs and restaurants began serving customers again last month and social-distancing rules were relaxed. This easing of restrictions had been mixed with some targeted tightening, as mask-wearing then became compulsory in shops. It was, ministers said, a question of balance, of persuading the public that trade-offs were necessary if freedoms were to be restored.
Some of the political heat seemed to have gone temporarily out of the Covid-19 story by late July. After months in which Johnson’s government had been criticised for doing too little too late, and of lurching one way then another in a seemingly endless series of U-turns, there had been, briefly, some cautious optimism that the worst of the chaos might be over.
As recently as last weekend the transport secretary Grant Shapps flew to Spain for a holiday. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had booked a break with his family to Ibiza. Covid-19 – for just a few days – was falling off the front pages.
But no sooner had the country glimpsed normality on the horizon than the mist descended again.
Last week quarantine controls were imposed again for British people returning from Spain (including Shapps who cut short his holiday) as cases of Covid-19 rose there. Warnings were issued that similar measures might be introduced for people in other European nations.
Meanwhile local spikes here led to more restrictions being imposed on parts of the north of England, including Manchester, with people from different households being told they could no longer meet indoors. These measures were hurriedly announced on Thursday evening on Twitter, adding to a sense of near panic returning to high places.
Then on Friday in a Downing Street news conference Johnson further fuelled fears of a new Covid-19 surge. The prime minister announced that a series of further planned easings of restrictions would have to be postponed and – in an eery reminder of his language in the days before the full lockdown was imposed on March 23 – he said he might soon have to “go further”.
Johnson’s remarks on Friday were littered with driving analogies as if the engine of state was faltering in its fight against the virus – of “warning lights” flashing on the dashboard and the need to “squeeze that brake pedal”. But it was England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, who gave the most sobering message, saying that the country was at or near the limit of what could be done to reopen society, given the stubbornly high infection rate. Any further easing would, therefore, have to be accompanied by tightening elsewhere.
The reactions of businesses which were unable to reopen, of politicians (including many Tory MPs) who had led constituents to believe the worst was over, and of civic leaders who had done their best to come up with solutions tailored to local needs only to find central government intervening, ranged from disbelief to anger and despair.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, says he fears worse could be to come and that Tories are trying to blame the people for their own failings. “People are asking: why is it that the poorest places in the north are the most affected by this virus? Some on the right are already seeking to put the blame on the people themselves and on different communities. We must not let them do this.”
Some Conservative MPs believe that Johnson has been so stung by criticism that he acted too late to introduce a lockdown in March that he is now beginning to reimpose measures too early to compensate.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers and member for Altrincham and Sale West, was one suggesting that the decision to ban gatherings in the north-west was an overreaction.
In a sign that MPs in affected regions are growing increasingly unhappy with their own government, Brady told the Observer on Saturday that ministers had to be more transparent about why they were introducing new controls, and what the criteria would be for lifting them.
“These restrictions were introduced with very little warning and applied to a large area of northern England within which there are dramatic variations both between local authorities and within them,” Brady said. “On the same day that the restrictions were imposed Trafford council’s own briefing for local MPs said there had been an increase among young people but described the overall rate of infection in the borough as remaining low.” He added: “The public deserves much more transparency from government about the evidence on which decisions are based and the criteria which will be used for lifting restrictions once they have been introduced.”
If Johnson had hoped for an easier August he can think again. The battle to contain Covid-19 is raising questions about cross-border movements within the UK and has potential implications for the SNP’s quest for independence. Nicola Sturgeon’s government issued a warning to Scots last week not to undertake travel to north-west England in the light of Johnson’s announcements. Only “essential travel” should take place while Scots already in the region should minimise their contact with people on their return.
After chairing a meeting of the Scottish government’s resilience committee, Sturgeon said: “I strongly advise anyone planning to travel to areas affected in the north of England, or anyone planning to travel to Scotland from those same areas, to cancel their plans.”
Last week’s decision by Johnson to tighten restrictions again was taken after studies showed alarming rises in numbers of new infections in many parts of country. These have now reached more than 4,000 new cases a day, according to the most recent estimate from the Office for National Statistics.
It was not hard for experts to work out why this was occurring. On Monday last week, Dido Harding, head of the government’s test and trace service, warned that social-distancing rules were being routinely flouted in virus hotspots. The danger was particularly acute in areas of high-density housing and in households where several generations live under the same roof.
This point was backed by Daniela de Angelis, deputy director of the Medical Research Council’s biostatistics unit. “The problem is no longer the care home or the hospital,” she told the Observer. “The cases we are seeing now are being generated in the community and that is very worrying.”
De Angelis is one of the scientists who have raised concerns about the direction that the epidemic has been taking. Analyses by her team have confirmed that thousands of new infections have still been occurring every day in England – and that this high rate had been persisting for a considerable time. “Numbers of new cases stopped declining several weeks ago and reached a plateau,” she added.
Nor is there much doubt among most scientists about the cause of this worrying trend. “We came out of lockdown too soon,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. “If we had delayed a few weeks and then had an effective contact tracing service we could probably have kept the disease at bay for considerably longer – possibly long enough for a vaccine to become available.”
Of course, there is the issue of whether or not lockdown would have been respected by the public for much longer, Hunter added. “Reports indicate people’s trust in lockdown collapsed with the Dominic Cummings debacle. How much of an impact that had is not totally clear but it certainly did not help.”
Stephen Griffin, associate professor at Leeds University’s school of medicine, also criticised the early easing of lockdown. “England went into lockdown far later than other countries in Europe but started to come out of it at around the same time. That was crazy. We did not give ourselves enough time to suppress the virus and now we are paying for that. If they had just carried on for a bit longer we would have avoided the heartache we are experiencing now.”
Then there is the issue of England’s test-and-trace service. “Is it working effectively?” asked Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at Reading University. “No. It is not.” And that is a worry, he added. “If you look at Germany where there is a very efficient test and tracing system, outbreaks are still happening. Yet in Britain we started lifting lockdown with a system that is still not likely to be working properly for some time.”
The crucial point now is to exploit the knowledge we have gained from the past four months of lockdown, said the epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse, of the University of Edinburgh. “In a sense we are in just the same position as we were in early March. We have a low number of cases that could still develop into a major epidemic. However, we do know a lot more about this virus today which could be vital as we try to extract ourselves from this situation.
“There was a blanket ban on outdoor activities when lockdown began but it turns out this virus does not transmit well outdoors,” added Woolhouse. “And we also know more about face masks and about safe social distancing. That should help us make wedding receptions, clubs, gyms, safer when we reopen them. The better able we are to do that, the quicker we will be able to resume those activities. So we’ve got to use the knowledge that we’ve gained so painfully in the last three or four months to good effect. That is the real lesson we should take from the events of the past couple of weeks.”
As optimism that we are heading out of the woods fades, support for and trust in the government continues to fall over its handling of Covid 19.
In its editorial yesterday the Johnson-supporting Sun wrote of a “danger of overreaction”. “We cannot surely keep locking down entire regions when cases rise a little,” it said. The Daily Telegraph added that people would be “demoralised” and urged the prime minister to develop a message that would allow people to make sense of its constantly shifting strategy.
In the latest Opinium poll for the Observer the Tories’ lead over Labour is now at just 3 points – the lowest level under Johnson so far – while approval of the government’s handling of coronavirus has gone into reverse again having experienced a mini-revival over the previous month. Less than a third of voters approve of the government’s handling of the crisis (30%) while 48% disapprove. More than half of people (51%) think we are coming out of lockdown too quickly (up three percentage points since last week).
The question now for government is whether it can hold the virus in check sufficiently for parents, teachers and workers to be confident in a return to something near normality in September. A senior teaching union source said after last week there were major questions that ministers had to answer. “We have a situation now where children over 11 have to wear masks in shops and cafes yet the government has said nothing about the use of masks in schools. How can that make sense?”
If September is to be a staging post on the road back to normality ministers now have much work to do.