Boris Johnson’s speech on his first day back at work after recovering from coronavirus was an attempt to provide security that he is back at the helm of government. As he spoke outside Downing Street he touched on the lockdown, economy and the health service’s ability to cope. Here, we look at what he said, and what it means.
We are now beginning to turn the tide. If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience, it is, then this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.
“Turning the tide” would mean that hospital admissions had decreased and the death toll had fallen persistently over a two-week period. The death toll was 413 in the 24 hours preceding Sunday 26 April, which is the lowest since the end of March, and a good sign. However, there were 449 deaths on 20 April followed by 828 the next day, so what the country needs is a sustained fall, not a yo-yoing of results. Johnson is right to say hospital admissions have fallen; Stephen Powis, the national director of Public Health England, said on Sunday: “We now have a very definite trend in the reduced number of people in hospitals with Covid-19.”
The phrase “invisible mugger” is quite Trumpian in tone – the US president refers to the illness as the “invisible enemy’”.
I know there will be many people looking now at our current success and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social distancing measures.
Using the word success here will be controversial, even if he is using it narrowly in relation to moving through the peak and having not overwhelmed the NHS. The government’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said a death toll under 20,000 would “be a good result” but the UK has already passed that, and that is without counting the number of deaths outside hospitals, including in care homes. There have also been problems getting personal protective equipment to the health and care workers who need it, and concerns over the government’s slow response on testing.
We did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds. We have so far collectively shielded our NHS, have been able to shield all of us, from an outbreak that would have been far worse.
He is right to say that the NHS has not collapsed and significant efforts were made to build up the number of critical care beds with the opening of the Nightingale hospitals in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Harrogate. Mass procurement of ventilators has been complex, with not as many needed as first envisaged due to doctors learning more about the type of oxygen treatment needed. Dyson invested £20m in new ventilator technology asked for by the government but in the end they have not been used. Saying the NHS has been shielded could be seen as insensitive considering the number of doctors, nurses and other health workers who have died while working on the frontline.
I want to serve notice now that these decisions will be taken with the maximum possible transparency. And I want to share all our working, our thinking, my thinking, with you, the British people.
This might be a reference to the increasing frustration that the government has said consistently that it is “following the science” to make decisions, but that this science is not available for public scrutiny. The government may have read the mood on this one and changed its stance. It is also not known exactly who is on the scientific advisory group, Sage, although the Guardian revealed that Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had been in attendance on what was supposed to be an independent body. It was unclear from Johnson’s statement how far he was prepared to go in terms of transparency.
We will also be reaching out … across party lines, bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can.
Although there have been conversations going on between Johnson and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, it was not clear whether the prime minister was indicating an increase in contact, or just keeping opposition parties in the loop. If it is to include Labour, for example, shouldering the responsibility of some policy decisions, that would be a dramatic change.
I know how hard and how stressful it has been to give up even temporarily those ancient and basic freedoms.
Johnson is a libertarian at heart and has made much of the language of freedom and liberty being curtailed and how it pains him personally. This kind of language is a flash of the prime minister’s own take on how people might feel about lockdown, although polling has shown that many are content with the restrictions and have not found them onerous. In fact, a Deltapoll survey showed that moving too quickly to lift restrictions was a significant worry for the British public across all generations and political groups.