It’s impossible to overstate how important it is for Prime Minister Boris Johnson that this goes well after a painful few weeks.
His pandemic response has been attacked across the political spectrum, as has his handling of recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country, with critics accusing Johnson of using language that enflames racial division, leading ultimately to ugly scenes as far-right extremist groups took part in violent counter-protests at the weekend. So, from the government’s perspective, this easing of lockdown must not end in disaster.
The worst-case scenario is that unlocking leads to a second wave of coronavirus infections, resulting in more deaths and the country being locked down again. It will be very hard to sell this to a public which, despite largely obeying measures since March, has the highest death rate in Europe.
“I don’t think it’s too much to say that his survival as Prime Minister is in danger if we get a second spike,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University. “I’m not sure he could restore public confidence in his government if anything like a return to the lockdown had to be executed. The government really has to get this right and pray it’s not too early, as some people claim it may be.”
These claims that lockdown is being lifted too soon range from the editorial pages of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, which believes Johnson is “seeing polls, not science” and “gambling with the health of the nation,” to scientists advising the government who have called it a “political decision.”
So, given the risk of it going wrong, why unlock now? The answer might lie in those opinion polls the Guardian is talking about. “I cannot remember a drop in trust for a British government occurring quite so rapidly,” says Bale. “A narrative has developed that Johnson and his government have made a series of mistakes that have led to more deaths than there really should have been. They will be hoping that opening up the country and economy again might shift that narrative — especially as the daily death toll drops.”
Such a distraction would probably be welcome.
Last week, the government had to abandon its hopes to have primary schools return before the summer holidays, after it became clear that many schools could not safely have pupils return. Johnson’s opposite number, Labour leader Keir Starmer, pointed out that the country is now in “a ridiculous situation where next week betting shops and theme parks will be open, but parents are not clear when their children will go back to school.”
To critics, it’s simply the latest example of this government’s incompetence in handling a major public health crisis. And those criticisms are not baseless. The UK went into lockdown later than many other European nations, a decision that Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and former government adviser, admitted last week was perilous: “Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.”
And the government’s core strategy to protect the national health service and abandon testing in the wider public on March 12 has been widely criticized by public health experts, who believe it has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths in the community.
“The government decided to create capacity in the NHS by sending elderly and invariably frail and vulnerable people to nursing homes. Some of them were infected with the virus. This introduced infection into homes and led to the staggering number of excess deaths,” says Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Pankhania is one of many public health experts who believes that the easing of restrictions as of Monday is premature and may cost more lives and makes a second peak almost inevitable.
“Our poor record on extensive and universal testing means that we can’t say with precision how many cases there are in the community. The government’s new test-and-trace system is too centralized and, in my opinion, not nimble enough, to pick up the true picture of infection,” he adds. The centralized test-and-trace operations eventually appeared five months after the UK’s first confirmed case of the virus.
‘Terrible black death toll’
As if one crisis wasn’t enough, Britain’s pandemic has dovetailed with the other big story of the moment: the global response to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States and the anger from black and ethnic minority communities at inequality and institutionalized racism.
Earlier this month, the government released a report detailing how the virus disproportionately affected the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community. The demonstrations that took place were about more than both George Floyd and the virus.
“Although Floyd was a trigger, the protests were as much about institutional racism and deaths of black people in police custody in the UK,” says Diane Abbott, a high-profile opposition Labour MP. “The whole atmosphere has been enflamed by the terrible black death toll from Covid, which has left the community feeling under siege.”
She, along with many others, has found the government’s response to be underwhelming. Johnson and others in the government said that the protests, which saw statues of slave traders pulled down, had been “subverted by thuggery.”
“This sort of language does have consequences. The word ‘thug’ plays into a stereotype of aggressive young black men,” says Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at the UK’s Birmingham City University. “When you look at why black people are so much more likely to be arrested or suffer violence it often comes back to this stereotype.”
On Friday, the Prime Minister sent a lengthy Twitter thread condemning those who wanted to graffiti or bring down the statue of Winston Churchill, which stands outside Parliament. The following day, far-right protesters took to the streets of London with the aim, some said, of protecting this statue from damage, leading to violent clashes with anti-racism protesters and police.
“Both the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary seemed more occupied about statues of slave traders being toppled than the death toll from the Atlantic slave trade,” says Abbott.
“How he can use the word ‘thuggery’ to talk about black protests is beyond me,” says Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at the UK’s Birmingham City University. “This sort of language does have consequences. The word ‘thug’ plays into a stereotype of aggressive young black men. When you look at why black people are so much more likely to be arrested or suffer violence it often comes back to this stereotype.”
So, this easing of lockdown comes at a time when Johnson is fighting on several fronts. Johnson loyalists are worried that his inner circle is not adequately prepared for what happens if things start to go wrong.
“A lot of us are worried that the top team haven’t seemed sure-footed lately,” said one government minister, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “If this goes well, then, in the long run, people might be relieved that we opened up the country and the economy and this could be remembered as a success. But we cannot afford to make as many mistakes we have in recent weeks. There is a lot of confusion and annoyance out there.”
Another Conservative MP who requested not to be named for risk of undermining parliamentary work said “Johnson is a leader, not a micromanager. His political capital is in getting the big things right, like solving the Brexit crisis last year. There is a lot of anger out there and if things go wrong, the finger will point to the Prime Minister.”
The worry among many Conservatives is that this government has been accident-prone lately, from creating avoidable scandals such as Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings being accused of breaking lockdown rules, to being forced into policy reversals.
“No one doubts this is a very challenging time for any government,” says Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party. “So many things are happening which are difficult to control because they are unprecedented. Yet when things you do control have setbacks because of poor planning, the risk is that the government looks weak which sets a dangerous narrative about competence.”
However, while many Conservatives are worried about this competence narrative, others are optimistic that if the lockdown is lifted successfully, then Johnson will reap the rewards. “To some extent, we will ultimately be judged more on the recovery from the pandemic than what is happening right now, on all fronts,” said the government minister. “Yes, people are frustrated, but deep down they know why it’s harder to open a school than a zoo.”
Johnson still has a long way to go before the year is out. The lives and many jobs that have been lost to this virus will not come back. The impact it has had on BAME citizens cannot be reversed. The anger that many black Britons feel won’t go away without a serious examination of inequalities in British society.
All of this stuff will need addressing in some way this year, regardless of a possible second peak. Which doesn’t bode well, given how much of the UK’s political discourse has been sucked up by the single issue of Brexit for nearly four years.
And, in the unlikely event that Johnson has forgotten, he has until December 31 to fix his current Brexit headache. If he doesn’t, the Covid-19 recession will collide with the economic crisis of a no-deal Brexit. Should that happen, Johnson might be forgiven for looking back wistfully at his December 2019 landslide victory, and cursing the difference that a year can make in politics.