PM: Virus is ‘on the downward slope’
A time of anxiety and isolation punctuated by moments of solidarity and optimism – be it the weekly applause for the NHS or Colonel Tom Moore’s phenomenal fundraising.
The prime minister’s absence felt all the more acute by his return today, as he finally gave us some hope that the end of the beginning was now on the horizon. He told us: “We are past the peak and on the downward slope.”
After days of ministerial stonewalling at the House of Commons’ despatch box and the daily news briefing, the prime minister finally gave us some insight about what the end of the beginning might look like.
Mr Johnson promised he would set out a detailed plan next week.
Getting children back to schools and adults back to work are the clear specified.
As for our social lives, a senior minister told me that would have to wait.
They said: “Bars and restaurants, no way. Getting schools back is difficult enough.”
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Caution is the watchword. The PM is not prepared to risk a second peak.
But he is at least beginning to prepare the ground for a change in direction from “stay at home and save lives”, to having a conversation about what we all need to do to keep the disease in abeyance, by working together to keep driving down the reproduction rate.
‘R’ rate below one is the guiding principle of everything the government will do in the coming weeks and months Because it is the key to suppressing the disease.
“It is going to be absolutely vital to our recovery,” said the prime minister.
The reproduction rate is Currently somewhere between 0.6-0.9.
What we don’t know is what level the government will want to drive it down to before they begin to ease the lockdown – this is still not settled around the cabinet table either, according to one government figure.
“What isn’t clear yet is what does (Health Secretary) Matt Hancock wan t it to get down to? ” they said.
“Does he want to get it down to 0.2 or below 0.5. Will 0.7 be ok?”
(Govt video explains COVID – ‘rate of infection’
Mr Johnson is now waiting on data from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) before he gives us our options and outlines the trade-offs next week.
But we are only at the beginning of the end of this crisis, and Mr Johnson knows it.
The flamboyant, jovial prime minister was replaced today by a far more sombre figure.
The clues to how acute his illness had been is still plain to see as he delivered his script.
He was a little breathless at times and lacking the trademark high energy that has become the hallmark of his political performance .
For he knows, better than most, the gravity of the situation we are in.
He has personally seen this dreadful disease up close and must now try to navigate a policy route of how we might live with it.
Ease the lockdown too soon and risk a second peak and the wrath of what comes with that.
Wait too long and risk not having much of an economy to return to, and a different sort of public health crisis.
He knows above all that he has to take the public with him.
‘I do think that face coverings will be useful’
It was telling that the prime minister Signalled a U-turn over using face marks on Thursday – in direct contradiction to Mr Hancock.
“As part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful, “Mr Johnson said.
” Both for epidemiological reasons but, also, for giving people confidence that they can go back to work. “
Because that is what the public will need: confidence.
It was public opinion that pushed the UK into the lockdown and the government must now try to shift public opinion to ease us out.
If wearing a face mask psychologically helps people venture outside, then face coverings are the order of the day.
A poll out this week by Ipsos MORI found the UK to be the most cautious of countries on the prospect of re-opening the economy and returning to work before the virus is under control.
It found only one in four Britons were in favor of relaxing the lockdown before the virus is suppressed, with an overwhelming (% opposed.
) Fresh out of a stint in intensive care, the prime minister will be able to empathise with those millions of Britons who will be feeling that their health is ultimately more important than their wealth.
But he has to govern too, not just for those who are fearful of exiting the lockdown but those who are fearful that not easing restrictions will ruin their businesses, ruin their mental health, ruin their education.
There are no easy answers; just hard choices and a long road ahead.
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