Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020

Coronavirus: The PM’s rhetoric is scarier than his measures – let’s hope he gets the balance right

Boris Johnson announced a smaller package of measures today than perhaps some might have expected.

While there is pressure from scientists for him to go further and introduce greater restrictions, we learnt today that this is not matched by political pressure from MPs for him to do so.

The prime minister announced curbs that amounted to tweaks.

Watch and follow live on Sky News as Boris Johnson gives a Downing Street broadcast at 8pm

He reduced pub opening hours in England, beefing up fines to £200 for compulsory face mask wearing, made a minor tightening of the ‘rule of six’ affecting those getting married imminently and changed non-statutory guidance that those who can work from home should do so.

The rhetoric was scarier than the measures announced today.

Although the prime minister made vague but dramatic sounding threats about having to go further without an improvement in COVID-19 infection rates, there were strikingly few specifics.

There was no specific talk at this stage of banning friends visiting each other’s houses, as happens in areas with higher coronavirus infection rates.

And the prime minister repeated his desire to keep children at school so many times as to make it all but impossible for him to ever carry out that policy without massive political cost.

What was striking was just how much flexibility Mr Johnson has left himself in coming weeks.

He was not clear when the government will assess whether the new restrictions are working – in a week? A month? When there’s the next panic?

Nor was is clear what metrics the government will use to assess the success of the measures announced today, beyond vague reference to the R number being important.

Nor was he clear what his suggestion of greater transparency from scientists will look like in practice, given the self-same scientists seem to be wanting him to go further.

What is striking is that the changes to coronavirus measures all appeared to go down well in the Commons chamber on all sides.

Yes there were grumbles on other subjects like testing, which made the prime minister splutter indignantly.

But what was notable and important was there was strikingly little appetite in the Commons for Mr Johnson to go further and introduce more restrictions than he has today.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he supported the new restrictions but did not demand they go further.

Tory backbenchers, worrying privately in recent days about the government going too far, did not object to the specifics of the proposals, although some like Steve Baker asked for a bigger role for parliament.

Let’s hope the politicians, rather than the scientists asking for the circuit break, have got the balance right.

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