Friday, 18 Sep 2020

Boris Johnson backs down again, leaving UK coronavirus plan in disarray

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Mr Boris Johnson’s government announced another U-turn on Wednesday (Sept 2), caving in to pressure from opponents and keeping local lockdown restrictions in place amid a rise in Covid-19 cases.

The prime minister is pushing to get Britons back to work and school, and his team had decided restrictions imposed in some areas of north-west England should be eased. But local politicians, including Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham condemned the plan and warned infections were rising again.

Five hours after Mr Burnham intervened, Mr Johnson’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the policy would be reversed.

“Following a significant change in the level of infection rates over the last few days, a decision has been taken that Bolton and Trafford will now remain under existing restrictions,” Mr Hancock said on Wednesday in an e-mail.

“This decision has been made in collaboration with local leaders after reviewing the latest data.”

With the UK economy in a deep recession, Mr Johnson is determined to avoid another national lockdown and has promised instead to target local areas where Covid-19 infections flare up, allowing daily life to carry on elsewhere.

The latest reversal is a blow to the credibility of Mr Johnson’s strategy and will add to the impression that his government is not in control.

The timing could not be more awkward for the premier, whose administration has made a series of U-turns in recent months, under sustained pressure over mistakes it has made in handling the pandemic crisis.

As Mr Hancock announced the decision, Mr Johnson was on his feet in the House of Commons attempting to defend his record amid attacks from opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who urged the prime minister to “get a grip”.

Labour accused ministers of trying to put the interests of local Conservative MPs ahead of public health, after influential Tory Graham Brady – who represents the Trafford district south-west of Manchester – called on the government to ease restrictions, despite local council leaders arguing it would be dangerous.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman told reporters the government had reversed its decision because the number of infections, which had been falling, is again rising. There are 36.8 cases per 100,000 people in the borough, a level which would trigger quarantine measures for returning travellers if it was another country.

In recent weeks, the government has reversed policies on issues including school exam grading, the wearing of face coverings in shops and in schools, its contact-tracing programme to contain the spread of the virus, and on allowing members of Parliament to vote in the Commons by proxy.

“They’ve lurched from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn,” Mr Starmer said. “That serial incompetence is holding Britain back.”

Mr Johnson said the government had succeeded in “turning the tide of this pandemic” and that people are going back to school and returning to work. But he’s likely to face more criticism over the policy reversals in meetings with his Conservative Party colleagues later on Wednesday.

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