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Stay alert – because we fear change

The narrative of Tory callousness is re-emerging

Artillery Row

In his Sunday evening televised address, Boris Johnson delivered a fourteen minute monologue to camera, correlating words and fists in near perfect harmony. Each exhortation for us to keep right on til the end of the road saw those fists link and tighten like a Roman shield-formation, only to open-up appealingly whenever he shifted from Churchillian resolve towards JFK-like hope in a better future.

This was a far more complicated speech to deliver than his lockdown-announcing address of 23 March. Then, the sense of a pending national calamity provided justification for most activities beyond the home to become immediately verboten unless specifically permitted. If in doubt, don’t. At its core was the priority that determined the policy – the need to slow Covid-19’s spread in order to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. We got the message.

Almost seven weeks on and the NHS has not been overwhelmed. Perhaps because we headed the lockdown, or perhaps regardless. Either way, the government protected the NHS rather better than the (mostly private sector) care homes. Now policy is adapting, a process less easily synced to precision sloganeering.

But not everyone wants to hear experimental new melodies when the classics are so catchy. As soon as the first ministers of Wales and Scotland, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, read in the Sunday newspapers that “Stay At Home” was being replaced with the less precise “Stay Alert” they rushed to insist that they would not be dancing to the PM’s new tune. The narrative of Tory callousness is re-emerging: replacing “Protect the NHS – Save Lives” with “Control the Virus – Save Lives” is to some a grievous insult to our hardworking healthcare professionals duly dropped from sanctified incantation. Who knew that the old blasphemy laws had mutated so quickly? The Scottish Trades Union Congress immediately tweeted that the prime minister’s address was “confusing and dangerous” – a statement that may not have brought clarity to Scots unsure about who they should be listening to.

The truth, of course, is that in so many of the areas touched by coronavirus, the prime minister of the United Kingdom’s word is no longer writ outside England. In recent days, some journalists have even been questioning whether there was any need for Scots to listen to what the big man in London had to say. The “four nations approach” is still referenced in Whitehall – Michael Gove in particular has been calling Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh over the course of this last week and Sturgeon’s dial-in access codes to the most recent Cobra meeting still worked despite growing suspicion in Whitehall that she uses the advance information she gleans there for partisan advantage. In the coming hours we will learn the extent to which the three first ministers’ desire to do things differently are matters of substance or slogan.

Sturgeon’s dial-in access codes to the most recent Cobra meeting still worked

For the rest of us, the prime minister offered three steps towards easing the lockdown. Definitely happening from Wednesday will be our freedom to engage in broader and longer recreational activities so long as we continue to practice social distancing from those not in our household. This means that tennis courts and golf courses can reopen, but not football or rugby clubs. You will be able to sunbathe at the beach or on a park bench without the cooling shade of a police constable looming over you.

More importantly for the economy, the prime minister articulated a clear shift of emphasis from expecting workers to stay at home unless they are key or frontline workers to asking them to return to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home (for instance, in construction and manufacturing). This advice came with the qualifications that social distancing measures need to be observed in their workplace and that wherever possible they should go there by car, bicycle or on foot rather than public transport. But what if none of these options is practical? Trade unions are gearing-up to challenge this encouragement to return to the building site and factory floor. Which advice workers caught-up in this push-pull will listen to is key to how far the Conservative government’s authority exists over organised labour in practice.

Other easements are dependent upon the R-number continuing to remain below 1. If this happens then we now know that the government intends for most shops to reopen and for nursery and primary schools for reception years 1 and 6 to restart by 1 June. Other primary schooling years are to be added thereafter, although with the approaching summer holidays, they can hardly be delayed for long into June. There will be no secondary schooling until September, although pupils in years 10 and 12 (who have GCSEs and A levels in the coming academic year) will receive some face-to-face time with teachers to discuss their preparation for the exams that await them next year.

It will be July – and only if the R-number permits it – at the earliest before we might be allowed to patronise places of outdoor hospitality. Indoor dining, let alone boozing in pubs indoors, is not happening any month soon.

Boris Johnson’s address had a lot of ground to cover, yet it will have left listeners with as many questions as answers.

Most of these queries should be addressed in the road-map, an approximately fifty-page document that Boris Johnson will introduce to parliament on Monday. The first easements are timed for Wednesday precisely because parliamentary support is being sought first. By happy coincidence, doing so also allows the government to postpone a deeply controversial vote that had been assigned for Tuesday on extending early prison release (so that two years in jail need only mean six months).

that MPs will get first dibs on studying the detail has infuriated some

The lockdown guidance being provided in the road-map will be wide-ranging. It will provide the detail on everything from official guidance on face-mask wearing to how and which elite sports may resume and the non-essential shops that can potentially reopen in June and the social distancing measures that need to be in place. Should the prime minister have made all this clear during his address to the nation? Yes, if you believe a great moment of prime-time television history was lost in not reading aloud fifty pages of guidance and regulation.

Nevertheless, that MPs will get first dibs on studying the detail has infuriated some in the media who feel that “the people” should be told first. Much of the initial negativity to the prime minister’s Sunday night broadcast has focussed on the hedged-nature of implementing Johnson’s next phases. This stems from a fear that whilst the great British public can just about handle comprehensive absolute statements they struggle with qualified ones.

Even before the prime minister had opened his mouth, his critics – prominently Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell – were writing him off as having failed to communicate that he had a grip on the situation. What Boris Johnson actually conveyed is the process by which restrictions ease over time through the evaluation of corresponding risk. The risk evaluation may be right or wrong, along with the expectation of cause and effect that informs it, but as a basic premise, what part of that message is so incomprehensible?

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