Reaction from political and business leaders in the capital to Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 national address last night has been swift and crisp. Sadiq Khan emphasised within minutes that “social distancing measures are still in place” and today has been hammering home his message that the task of overcoming the coronavirus is “far from over“. With equal speed, London Chamber of Commerce & Industry chair Richard Burge offered his “strong and unequivocal advice” to London businesses “not to change your plans for tomorrow”. Why? “You have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work, nor how to keep them safe while they are there,” he said.
The similarity of these reactions from different parts of London’s power structure speaks eloquently of the Prime Minister’s failings. Whatever wise counsel had informed his recipe for easing the UK out of its lockdown was lost in a morass of muddled and mixed messages delivered in the style of an amateur dramatics hack who had failed his Gravitas GCSE. The six members of my households gathered round the telly in the style of a commercial from the 1950s. What we watched was like one of those Monty Python sketches lampooning upper-class twits, except we never got to the funny bits.
We shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of the PM’s task. The right balance between providing the public with information – and maybe a bit of hope – and not confusing it with too much complexity must be hard to strike at this time, and to get across effectively. But Johnson is a chancer and a rogue, not built for shouldering grave responsibilities.
As London Mayor, his few successes were in dull, difficult areas he was relieved to leave in the hands of more capable people. The rest was showboating, advantage-seeking and rewarding cranks and cronies with jobs they were no good at. His new “stay alert” message is a mess and marks a partial return to his early “send it packing” approach to coping with the virus, when he came across like a scout camp leader rallying the troop to muck in and dig more lavatories. Johnson’s chief asset as a politician is his quick eye for the ridiculous. Sadly, his gargantuan self-belief prevents it being trained upon himself.
Further details of the government’s “outline of a roadmap” for the future are promised but, for now, many Londoners who normally go out to work are beginning their weeks unsure if they should or should not revert to normal commuting, if they will or will not be in trouble if they don’t, and if they should or should not wear face-coverings when on the Tube. At the same time, evidence keeps appearing that people are making judgements about what is acceptable behaviour that are odds with those of some in authority. Hackney Police reported over the weekend that they were “fighting a losing battle in the parks”, with “literally hundreds of people” sitting out, eating and drinking. Who is right and who is wrong?
I am still a bit divided over the “lockdown”. Protecting NHS capacity has certainly made sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that more assiduous protection of those known from the start to be the most vulnerable to the virus and less of a blanket shutdown might have produced a better result in the short term and beyond. Objective judges gently advise that not until we’ve seen a year or more of “excess deaths” data – the number of fatalities above what would normally be expected – can we make meaningful comparisons with what has happened in other nations. And, in the end, if a vaccine doesn’t show up to make us immune, logic suggests that an evolved resilience against the virus within the human herd might indeed be our only hope of stopping it from ruling our lives.
But in the absence of certainty, let us at least have clarity. Londoners are surely seeking some plain advice to guide their decisions about their work, their families and their movement in and around the city, which is so different and distinctive from most of the rest of the UK. Maybe the government’s roadmap will come more into focus in the next few days. Maybe it will boil down to something little different from what the Mayor is saying or will start saying soon. But until the fog surrounding the Prime Minister’s words has cleared, it’s difficult to quarrel with the urgings from the Chamber and from City Hall to do nothing different for the time being.
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