When Boris Johnson suggested a few weeks ago that life could return to normality “in time for Christmas” the comment raised hopes as well as eyebrows.
Ignoring the obvious first world war references to optimistic predictions of an early end to the conflict, the UK prime minister announced a number of measures — kicking in on August 1 — that would all but remove the last vestiges of the Covid-19 lockdown.
That sense of ebullience evaporated at midday on Friday when Mr Johnson used a Downing Street press conference to announce that he was “applying the handbrake” to most of those moves at the last minute.
No longer would bowling alleys, casinos, skating rinks be allowed to open from Saturday. He also delayed plans to loosen the rules around wedding receptions.
Instead, the prime minister tightened one requirement: extending the mandatory wearing of face coverings from public transport and shops to museums and cinemas.
“We can’t fool ourselves that we are exempt. We have to be willing to react to the first signs of trouble,” he said in solemn tones, as he reminded the country that other European countries were “struggling” to keep the virus under control.
Concerns about a delay to the reopening of skating rinks might sound like a fringe preoccupation, but it points to an increasingly skittish mood in Number 10.
“He [Mr Johnson] has to simultaneously encourage economic activity while also stopping the disease getting out of control again, it’s a real case of using the brakes and accelerator at the same time,” said one senior Tory.
Just hours earlier, the government caused uproar by banning gatherings of different households indoors across a stretch of northern England — affecting 4.5m people — amid fears about localised spikes in Covid-19.
Ministers defended the muddled communications around that announcement on Thursday night, saying they would never apologise for acting in haste to tackle the pandemic.
One Downing Street official said Friday’s pause on the reopening represented only a “slight shift” in Mr Johnson’s plan. “It’s a bit of a moment but it’s not major,” he said “It’s more of a short delay by pushing things back slightly.”
Indeed the prime minister — under pressure from Conservative backbenchers to get the economy back on track — is still pressing ahead with plans to scrap government guidance that everyone should work from home where possible. He will also end “shielding” for millions of vulnerable people.
But Downing Street’s scientific advisers had been watching the data on infections over the past few days with growing anxiety ahead of the planned easing on August 1.
Mr Johnson’s decision to scrap the additional easing came after the Office for National Statistics released the latest coronavirus infection numbers on Friday morning.
New infections have risen from 2,000 per day in late June to 4,900 at present. “We can’t afford to ignore this evidence,” the prime minister said.
One long-serving grandee said “Once again Boris seems to have been listening too much the scientists, who have got it wrong at almost every stage, and not enough to common sense. We need to get as much of the economy moving as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Some experts welcomed the rapid interventions. Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, University of Nottingham, said the measures were prudent given “concerns about rising cases in parts of the country and exactly what is responsible for this increase”.
The prime minister has always described the easing of the lockdown as a difficult process which could be paused or reversed at any point.
But the timing of his announcement was met with a sense of foreboding in the business world.
This weekend is the precise point at which the Treasury starts to gradually dismantle its “job support scheme” which, at the peak of the crisis, kept over 9m people in work.
Executives now realise that the pandemic is likely to be far from over when this furlough scheme is axed completely on October 31, which could prompt a flood of redundancies.
“While tackling the public health emergency must be the priority, these announcements — made at short notice — will be a hammer blow to business and consumer confidence,” said Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce.
The tourism industry had hoped for a surge in bookings for the August summer holiday season. Instead the industry has been thrown into chaos by the sudden move to impose quarantine on people coming in from Spain last weekend and Luxembourg on Thursday night.
Standing next to the prime minister, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the easing of the lockdown could only go so far. “We are at the outer limit of what we can do, so choices will need to be made.”
Susan Michie, who advises the government on behavioural science, said national action should have been taken earlier to stem the rise in infections.
“We have been in a very problematic situation for the last two or three weeks in that the R level in England has been just below 1 and the infection rate hasn't been coming down,” said Professor Michie who is director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London.
The Tory government had been following “a kind of haphazard whack-a-mole strategy” which fostered uncertainty, she said.
Alun Cairns, a former cabinet minister, said Mr Johnson faced a “delicate balance” to sustain economic activity while managing local spikes. “He is communicating a nuanced message, which is always challenging.”
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