A few weeks ago, a group of civil servants at the Cabinet Office were tasked with what you might consider an impossible mission. The officials were told to find a way of re-opening nightclubs in a coronavirus-safe way. A bright group, they reported back with some ideas, but each collided with the fundamental problem at the heart of this exercise. The socially distanced nightclub is a contradiction in terms. Nightclubs, by their very nature, are all about social intimacy.
I relate this story to illustrate just how very desperate the government has been to release Britain from every aspect of lockdown and return us to something that resembles the pre-coronavirus world as closely as possible. They dreamed of returning to that prelapsarian age in which you could eat out with your family, go drinking with your mates, commute to work, celebrate a religious festival or jet off to a holiday somewhere reliably sunny without having to worry about catching or spreading a deadly disease. While never quite saying it explicitly, their ambition has essentially been to get everything open again. This has been driven by a Treasury so frantic to get the economy on its feet that it is offering taxpayer-funded bribes to get people back into eateries over August. This has combined with a Downing Street desirous to create the impression that the crisis is subsiding, not least in the hope that this would blunt memories of the many blunders it committed in the opening phases of the epidemic.
One recent study suggests that less than half the adults in England now understand government guidelines
The reopening began tentatively and experimentally at first. The prime minister generally adhered to the counsel of Number 10’s scientific advisers that it would be perilous to rush the lifting of restrictions when the effects of easing were not wholly predictable. The initial steps were too slow for many Tory MPs, who for a while could be heard muttering that Mr Johnson’s self-described mugging by the virus had left him “scarred”, “scared” and “over-cautious”.
This idea that we have a prime minister who over-errs on the side of caution was never very compatible with everything else that we know about his personality and the theory looks even less convincing today. Sports fixtures are still being played to empty stands, but the progressive relaxation of controls means that much else became allowed again. Shops, pubs, restaurants, beauty salons and hairdressers re-opened their doors. As did stately homes, cinemas, playgrounds and beaches. To reinforce the notion that the worst was over, the prime minister cancelled the daily Number 10 news conference, sending a false signal that the crisis had passed. The emergency news conference that was hastily arranged on Friday, in response to worrying signs of a resurgence in infection, was the first in many weeks.
The most telling illustration of Mr Johnson’s yearning for the crisis to go away came when he broke with the scientists by abruptly changing the government’s advice on travelling to work. In mid-July, he declared that the injunction to “stay at home if you can” was being replaced with “go to work if you can”. Mr Johnson further declared a desire to see “bustle” return to high streets.
The British economy and many of its jobs are precariously dependent on what is called “social consumption”: eating, drinking, shopping, travelling and leisure. Put crudely, but not inaccurately, the prime minister wanted office workers back at their desks to save the bottom line of Pret a Manger and its like.
We have to be realistic… the idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrongChris Whitty, chief medical officer for England
The onset of high summer was also revealing of the government’s mindset. Many Britons have been understandably keen to get a break. Ministers might have exhorted their fellow citizens to try a staycation this year, but they were anxious to do something to appease the lobbying from stricken airlines, airports and tour operators. The creation of “air bridges” to destinations in Europe did not come with much warning to the public that those bridges might fall down, making it a gamble to book a holiday abroad this year.
This increasingly rapid easing of lockdown was accompanied by splits within government about which potential mitigations against infection should be put in place. Michael Gove went on television to declare that masks should not be mandatory only hours before Mr Johnson announced that mask-wearing would become compulsory in shops. Muddled messaging by the government has left much of the public thoroughly confused. One recent study suggests that less than half the adults in England now understand government guidelines.
Ministers seemed nonchalant about that until their complacency was suddenly shaken by a series of jolting reminders that the coronavirus cannot be simply wished away and the world will not be back to “normal” soon. Fright about a resurgence of infection in parts of Europe triggered the snap imposition of new quarantine rules on returning holidaymakers. That was followed by a sudden ban on people from different households gathering in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and parts of west Yorkshire, a prohibition affecting more than 4 million people that was announced by tweet and video clip late in the evening and just hours before it came into effect.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, used his podium at Friday’s news conference to make public the warnings that he and other government advisers have been privately delivering to the prime minister for some time: “We have to be realistic about this: the idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.” Mr Johnson is now saying that we should not “delude ourselves” that “we are out of the woods”. The deluded would until very recently have included him. Just a fortnight ago, he was suggesting to the nation that the crisis would be as good as over by Christmas.
Fear of a “second wave”, which it is more accurate to call a “second spike”, is again stalking the corridors of government. One nerve-shredder for ministers is the impact on an already battered economy. Even if we avoid another national lockdown, there is a serious cost to local lockdowns. The “whack-a-mole” strategy doesn’t just hurt economic activity in an affected region; it is likely to depress the confidence of businesses and consumers more generally, by elevating anxiety across the country. “Many of my local businesses are hanging on by their fingertips,” says one senior Tory from the West Midlands. “A second wave will kill them.” Companies will be reinforced in their reluctance to comply with the prime minister’s continuing exhortations to get office workers back at their desks. Large firms, Google among them, are planning to keep their employees at home for the rest of this year.
Time that ought to have been devoted to building resilience has been spent declaring war on the civil service
Then there’s the effect on public opinion of a re-escalation in infection. Allies of the prime minister report that he believes many voters will ultimately forgive the government’s mistakes, numerous though they were, on the way into the epidemic, when ministers were first confronted with a novel disease. The fear swirling around Number 10 is that the public will be much less tolerant of a resurgence, especially if it looks like the result of incompetence and recklessness. Hence the anxiety of Mr Johnson in recent days to try to deflect any culpability away from himself by emphasising that infection rates are on the rise in many parts of the globe. It wasn’t me what done it, guv, the world is to blame.
This may not be the cast-iron alibi he is looking for, because a significant resurgence will magnify the fact that Britain remains less well-equipped to deal with the virus than many other countries. There is no routine testing programme for the whole population, which it is credibly argued would be the most assured method of containing the virus. The limited test, trace and isolate regime to deal with outbreaks is not comprehensive, never mind the promised “world beater”, despite a £10bn price tag. After all the tragedies in care homes – “thrown to the wolves” according to a recent searing parliamentary report – that sector continues to struggle to access adequate supplies of reliable kits. Despite the very well-known hazard that NHS staff are more likely to contract infection, health workers are still not being regularly tested. On top of all that, Britain continues to lack any serious capacity to ensure that everyone who should be quarantining is doing so. Time that ought to have been devoted to building resilience against a resurgence has instead been spent declaring war on the civil service and squandered on futile exercises such as trying to reopen nightclubs.
The government is clearly now very worried that the virus is gaining fresh momentum. If there is a sharp second spike, Boris Johnson has reason to fear that many of the public will clamour to stick his head on it.
•Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer