The alarming prospect of a two-week nationwide “circuit-breaker” shutdown involving the closure of some hospitality businesses, as well as other potential restrictions, emerged today as an active possibility after being suggested at a meeting of the Government’s scientific advisers.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, says in response that the Government wants to do everything possible to avoid “serious further measures” but that some sort of second national lockdown could be necessary if coronavirus infection rates continue to rise.
That would have a disastrous impact on the businesses directly affected, as well as many others who would be hit by the knock-on loss of trade, and must be kept as very much a last resort while efforts to stem the surge in infections — which are increasing sharply in London too — are stepped up.
But the fact that such draconian measures are even being contemplated makes it imperative that the whole Government is prepared, particularly Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
He is already under pressure to replace his successful furlough scheme, which is due to finish at the end of October, with targeted measures to help those industries, such as the hospitality, travel and leisure sectors, which are still struggling to generate the revenues they need to survive.
He will need to do even more if a temporary shutdown is imposed. Otherwise, many more businesses will go to the wall and the tentative economic recovery taking place will be stalled.
Mr Sunak is one of the few members of the Government to have gained credit during the crisis and he’ll need to show creativity again, preferably sooner rather than later, to give businesses confidence that they will have the Government’s support if further restrictions are imposed.
The Chancellor’s record gives the Evening Standard optimism that he can do so, but the same can’t be said of our view of the Prime Minister’s performance at this time of national crisis. Mr Johnson has been absent from battle too often, repeatedly leaving it to ministers to answer the difficult questions.
This worked during the election campaign but this is a pandemic and the nation needs convincing, strong leadership. He should be out every day talking to us — instead his few forays into the public realm have been unconvincing, often projecting his fantastically optimistic visions over testing, or that it will all be over by Christmas, all of which undermines rather than enhances public confidence.
Distractions over Brexit haven’t helped either, giving the impression this is what he cares about. It’s time Mr Johnson communicates leadership, even if behind the scenes he is operating effectively — we certainly don’t feel it.
Labour’s annual conference begins online this weekend with praise on its eve from the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks about the strides the party has made under Sir Keir Starmer in tackling its anti-Semitism problem.
He’s right, and while Sir Keir needs to ensure his good intentions are delivered, it’s excellent that his party is restoring its reputation on this vital issue.