Evening Standard comment: The speech Boris Johnson should make in the Midlands | Art is back in town

·4-min read

Boris Johnson picked the wrong day, the wrong place and the wrong theme for his big speech today.

This was meant to be the start of Britain’s — sorry, his — big comeback. It was meant to be the moment we all got ready to head back to the pub, return to the office, make plans for school, book a holiday in somewhere sunny like Greece, and get the country fizzing with huge investment plans echoing America’s New Deal of the Thirties— a Hoover Dam for Huddersfield, or maybe a Boris Barrage for Bolsover.

So how’s that working out?

Greece has just extended its ban on British tourists, while welcoming holidaymakers from places such as France and Germany. And where are those promised billions for infrastructure? The £100 million for roads projects being announced today is just enough to buy a single short bypass around a village.

There are persistent rumours that the eastern arm of High Speed Two, up to Leeds, will not be built. Meanwhile, what’s happened to the third runway at Heathrow?

That’s not even Mr Johnson’s biggest problem today.

He headed to Dudley to make what he hoped would be an eye-catching speech about opening up. But just 55 miles away in Leicester the virus is spreading again and the Government is locking the city down. So in one part of the Midlands the Prime Minister was talking about rebuilding schools. In another his Government is busy shutting them down.

What’s the plan for the Leicester lockdown? Why, days after it was first rumoured, is it still being only done slowly — when we know the way to control the virus is to act fast?

Non-essential shops in the city are closed from today. Schools are still open, but might close on Thursday. How can this make sense? Why has the Government not even yet set out its powers to do this — as it had promised to do by the end of the month? How might a local lockdown be managed elsewhere — especially in London, if it is needed? Would it be imposed borough by borough, or across all nine million people in the capital?

In Germany, China and South Korea, restricted lockdowns have been brought back efficiently when a spike in new cases has been found. What’s happening in Leicester suggests we’d struggle to do the same.

That’s the important thing that Mr Johnson should have been talking about in the Midlands today.

Of course, you can guess why he decided not to — why he has left it to the Health Secretary to lead the process in public, when it’s really his job and the Chancellor’s.

At least he’s got one thing right. All eyes are on the Midlands, just as he wanted. Only it’s what’s happening in Leicester, not his speech in Dudley, that’s getting our attention.

Art is back in town

In London, meanwhile, we’re still opening up.

As we report today, after 111 days the National Gallery will be the first of our great cultural centres to welcome back visitors. It will return on July 8, with a blockbuster exhibition of Titian, one-way systems and timed tickets booked in advance.

Other galleries in London are making plans to return, too. The Royal Academy is opening to its members next week, and to everyone soon after that. The lovely, small Estorick Collection of modern Italian art is coming back on July 15. The Tate is planning to open its galleries by the end of next month. We don’t yet know when the V&A will reopen — soon, we hope, and it needs to tell us.

Publicly funded institutions should be open to the public, if they can be made safe. Galleries, made for quiet contemplation, certainly can be.

The experience will feel strange, but in some ways it will be better.

Tourists who pack the National Gallery won’t be here this summer. With numbers limited and slots guaranteed in advance, this will be the best chance ever to see some of the world’s greatest art collections in space and calm.

More than that, the return of galleries and museums should be the start of a reopening of the arts. Getting theatre and music back will take time — and funding — but let’s enjoy what we are getting back now.

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National Gallery will be first major museum to reopen after lockdown