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Safety-first approach ditched as PM embarks on very difficult tightrope act

Written by on 22 September 2020

When I asked a senior minister who knows Boris Johnson well last week how he approaches COVID-19, they told me the prime minister takes a “safety-first” approach.

“He’s in a very difficult situation because it all rests on his shoulders. His instinct is to keep the virus under tight control. If there’s a spike it’s on him.”

And yet on Tuesday, after days of speculation that tough restrictions were imminent, the prime minister appeared to take some risk.

Instead of just following the recommendations from his Scientific Advisory Group for a short sharp “circuit-break” in order to try to slow the transmission of the virus, the prime minister opted for an altogether lighter set of measures.

Asking bars to close at 10pm and office workers to once more work from home and more stringent use of masks, the most significant part of the speech wasn’t the package of measures but rather the length of time they could be in place (six months until the spring).

In full: PM’s Downing Street speech on coronavirus

How did Mr Johnson arrive at this point after days of deliberation with his scientific, economic and political advisers?

It is, if you like, a departure from the safety-first approach that has governed Mr Johnson’s approach to handling COVID-19 these past six months to a rather nuanced approach in which the prime minister tries to walk the tightrope in controlling the spread of the virus while also trying to keep the economy open.

More from Boris Johnson

He said much the same himself in the Commons: “We are taking decisive and appropriate steps to balance saving lives with protecting jobs and livelihoods”.

And it is quite a departure from the talk behind the black door at Number 10 even a few days ago as insiders whispered about the need to potentially bring in a short period of very heavy restrictions – the so-called circuit break – to reduce our social activity (perhaps by closing the hospitality sector and banning household mixing) and reduce transmission.

Coronavirus: The numbers behind the UK's newest COVID-19 warnings

Coronavirus: The numbers behind the UK’s newest COVID-19 warnings

The evidence presented by scientists pointed to social interactions and household transmission as being the main spreaders of the disease rather than COVID-secure workplaces – and so it was the hospitality sector and our social lives that could require some quite drastic (if short-lived) change.

But if the question posed was whether to introduce tough restrictions in order to hammer down the virus now, the answer arrived at over days of debate was ‘no’.

The financial and longer-term social costs of turning off economic activity for two to three weeks were just too great.

“We hope we can reset people’s behaviour without a circuit break,” said one Number 10 figure. “These measures are trying to do that with as little economic impact as possible.”

It is a departure from the prime minister’s safety-first approach, a reflection perhaps of the reality that as this pandemic grinds the economic as well as health problems are piling up.

Nicola Sturgeon's address to the nation

‘Let’s pull together’: Sturgeon addresses Scotland

A reflection of the growing anxiety from a Treasury looking down the barrel of recession, a huge debt mountain and mass joblessness and a restive Conservative Party concerned about the public finances as well as people’s liberties.

What the prime minister’s tried to do, say those around him, is find a compromise of imposing lighter measures with the caveat that if people don’t comply and the R number continues to rise, tougher policies will come into force.

It is, says one insider, “the last chance saloon”.

Nicola Sturgeon has chosen a different route, taking a safety-first approach for the people in Scotland and more closely following her own scientific advisors who said the prime minister’s measures were “not sufficient” enough to bring the transmission rates down.

Time will tell who was right and who was wrong.

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The virus hasn’t changed but Mr Johnson’s approach to it has. He has charted a new course through this second wave as he walks that tightrope between keeping the economy as open as possible and the virus in check.

There will be lots of voices saying he’s gone too far and lots of others saying he’s not gone far enough. And as for the prime minister himself, there is no guarantee he can pull it off.

Success depends not just on the decision of our leaders but also on whether we all decide to follow.

Everyone has a part to play in getting through this crisis, but Boris Johnson bears more responsibility than anyone else.

The decisions he is making now will prove pivotal – not just for the country but for his premiership too.