A nation in fear of a terrible disease, traumatised by tens of thousands of deaths but anxious too about what this lockdown would mean for their livelihoods and their future: Boris Johnson knew the scale of the task he faced when he told the public he had a “road map” to both “beat the virus” and “re-open society”
The 50-page strategy document the government published in May was meant to give us all clear signposting and staging on our journey towards a ‘new normal’ of living with COVID-19.
Loosening the lockdown was predicated on five tests – from protecting the NHS to seeing a sustained fall in the death rate. At the heart of the public messaging was a commitment to keeping the reproduction number R below one and a new COVID Alert Level System to inform the speed of lockdown lifting.
And yet we find ourselves a month later easing the lockdown down against the backdrop of an R rate marginally worse than it was in May (at 0.7-0.9) across the country, and potentially above one in the North West, according to data published by Public Health England and Cambridge university.
The COVID Alert Level is still at 4, and yet Mr Johnson is sticking to his plan to re-open retail outlets from 15 June and the wider hospitality industry from 4 July.
Ministers point to the sustained fall in death rates and confirmed cases as evidence that the disease is in abeyance. But there are some scientists – and politicians – who worry that ministers are potentially lifting the lockdown too early and risking a resurgence of infections as the looming economic crash comes into view.
Health secretary Matt Hancock insisted “there just isn’t a trade off” when I put that argument to him at the daily briefing on Monday: “If we don’t have control of this virus then the economy will suffer yet more. It is just simplistic to say that there is a trade-off between the economy and health.
“A second spike would be hugely damaging to the economy. Of course, there are arguments over timing. But.. things are moving in the right direction, that is why we are able to say that coronavirus is in retreat.”
There are those in Mr Hancock’s party who are not so sure. One former senior minister told me this week the government is facing the “worst of both worlds” because it had to open up the economy to try to save jobs at a time when the infection rate was still relatively high compared with other European countries which have been on a similar journey.
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, believes the government must re-open the economy, get people back to work and try to manage the disease by effective track and trace.
“They’re being very nervous. They’re terrified of having a second lockdown. Absolutely terrified. But the truth is we need to get back to work.
“Actually, unemployment and economic damage kills people as well, actually rather more than are dying from coronavirus, if we’re not very careful.
“We’ve got to suppress the virus, that doesn’t mean suppressing the economy. They are not the same thing.”
These are all difficult choices and there will be trade-offs – whether ministers admit it or not.
That the government is opening theme parks, betting shops and even pubs before schools re-admit all their pupils shows the manner in which education has been put on the back burner as the government prioritised first a health crisis and now an economic one.
And those economic considerations as well as public health ones are now driving government decisions: That the government is pressing on with easing the lockdown despite the R number still hovering near one, and the COVID Alert Level still at level 4, is evidence enough that the route map is being adjusted as we go along.
And as the road map gets re-drawn, public confidence in No 10’s ability to take them safely on this journey out of lock down is falling away.
The UK government now the joint-lowest approval rating worldwide (alongside Mexico) for how it has managed coronavirus, according to a poll out this week by YouGov.
Mr Johnson’s personal approval rating has dropped 29 points to -7 from the launch of his road map on May 10 to now. It is perhaps a reminder to the PM and his team that if you’re trying to take people with you, be honest about the route.