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You know it’s time to get worried when Boris Johnson starts talking about honesty. Last year, when he was still refusing to trigger lockdown ahead of the first Covid wave, he actually said “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.
He wasn’t so much levelling with us as admitting belatedly that his own inaction was going to lead to large numbers of fatalities. We now know that “herd immunity”, or at least a mistaken belief that the public wouldn’t accept lockdown, lay behind that apparently fatalism on the part of the PM. Patrick Vallance’s warning that a “good outcome” would be 20,000 deaths was more right than anyone guessed.
On Monday, as he set out his ‘Big Bang’ plan to remove all restrictions on July 19, he was at it again. “We must be honest with ourselves,” he said, “that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?”
Of course, there was nothing honest about the false choice he then presented (Dominic Cummings reminded us that Johnson “lies – so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly – that there is no real distinction possible with him, as there is with normal people, between truth and lies.). The PM claimed those who wanted a further delay to the lifting of restrictions wanted to reopen “in the winter”, when the virus will have an advantage, “or not at all this year.”
In fact, his own new timetable, of mid-September for every adult being double-jabbed, presented a real alternative for some critics. Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, hardly a man who wants restrictions to stay a minute longer than necessary, said that deadline would be the perfect time to think about ending mask wearing.
In other areas of unlocking, such as the end of the work-from-home guidance, a slight further delay to September is attractive to others. And even this prime minister’s gift for shape-shifting can’t turn September into “winter”. Several scientists had been urging less of a “Big Bang” and more of a further phased removal of curbs to smooth out their impact.
To be fair, Johnson did have Chris Whitty on hand to say that “at a certain point” further delay doesn’t reduce hospitalisations and deaths, it just postpones them. But Whitty’s and Sir Patrick Vallance’s caution was palpable on the key issue of mask-wearing, their unease reflected in the way the PM talked swiftly about making decisions on economic and not just health grounds.
The chief medical officer set out his three scenarios for personally using a face covering, but more important perhaps was the immediate context in which he placed those conditions. He pointedly said he would keep wearing a mask right now, “particularly at this point when the epidemic is clearly significant and rising”.
But all the caveats Whitty used for when he would deploy a mask - any situation with an indoor crowded space, when told to by a ‘competent authority’, and when others feel ‘uncomfortable’ - just made the case for continued regulation to avoid individuals having to negotiate and police each scenario themselves.
The real significance of the masks debate is that it gets to the heart of the PM’s shift from governmental action to individual action. With previous Conservative administrations having sold off several nationalised industries, there’s little left to flog off other than Channel 4. But on Covid protections, it now feels as if Boris Johnson wants to privatise government responsibility too. Forget levelling up, this seems to be a levelling down of the morality tale of the pandemic.
One problem with this outsourcing of responsibility is that wearing face coverings is actually (as Vallance pointed out) about protecting others rather than yourself, it’s about public health, not private morality. That sense of duty is precisely why many people get jabbed: it protects them but ultimately protects the whole of society from transmission of a highly infectious virus.
At one point on Monday, some in government even hinted that the clinically vulnerable who want to travel on Tubes should only do so off-peak. There is certainly going to be a battle royal with groups such as Blood Cancer UK, which point out that ditching masks is going to effectively force people off public transport. Let’s see if London Mayor Sadiq Khan makes it a condition of carriage.
The PM’s “if not now, when?” approach was also a real contrast with his earlier pledge to be driven by data not dates. And in his punchiest response to any of the coronavirus updates since the start of the pandemic, Keir Starmer was quick to say Johnson was being “reckless”. Starmer also said ministers should hold off on ditching masks, introduce proper ventilation support and promise to pay more to people to self isolate.
The confused public health message on masks left Johnson saying he would wear one on a packed Tube but not in an empty, late night, inter-city train carriage. Most worrying of all however is not the lack of clarity but the potential tensions it sets up. Appeals to ‘courtesy’ may not work when both mask-backers and mask-haters have strongly held views.
I was struck recently by polling showing that lockdown sceptics tend to be Brexiteers, while lockdown supporters tend to be Remainers. Risk maximisers versus risk minimisers. Gamblers versus safety-firsts. As if the nation isn’t riven enough.
With his latest laissez faire policy on masks, the PM appears yet again prepared to let those divisions play out. Which in turn gives Starmer, if he somehow captures a weariness of all the them-and-us politics, the chance to present himself as potentially a healer of the nation, post-Brexit, post-pandemic.
All of us will be crossing our fingers that the government has got its unlockdown calculations right. But if hospitalisation numbers do start going up, Johnson’s political nerve really will be tested. It’s also worth remembering, as Patrick Vallance reminded us, that we will have to wait until next week for the very latest modelling on the actual number of deaths this ‘Freedom Day’ policy entails.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.