Can Boris Johnson navigate the end of lockdown?
The FT's Whitehall correspondent Sebastian Payne looks at how the prime minister can balance the health of the nation with getting the country back to work and protecting the economy
Filmed and Produced by Petros Gioumpasis
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We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives.
The very gradual easing of the UK's nationwide lockdown is beginning, but this is a perilous process for Boris Johnson and his government. People in England are allowed to leave their homes as much as they want, to go and exercise in a park as freely as possible. They can also go and meet one friend in a socially-distanced manner. But Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have taken a different approach. They're continuing to maintain those strict social-distancing measures after disagreeing with Mr Johnson's approach here.
The government in Westminster wants to give Britions a little bit more freedom, to allow them outside their house but also crucially to try and get the nation back to work. Their aggressive message which was to stay at home to protect lives and save the NHS, was, in some ways, too successful. Too many Britons stayed home, and the economy has ground to a halt.
But the government wants to get people back to work because the economic cost of that lockdown is growing all the time. It wants to try and do so in an approach that maintains social distancing measures, the sort of thing we've seen in countries like Sweden.
I can announce today that the job retention scheme will be extended for four months, until the end of October.
But the cost of that shutdown was made clear this week when Rishi Sunak announced the furloughing scheme would continue, where the government will pay 80 per cent of wages for millions of Britons. The idea being that the alternative, mass unemployment, is much worse. But from August, Mr Sunak says that employers will start to have to pay the costs themselves, with the government tapering off how much it's going to pay. Because the cost to public funds with that scheme is extraordinary. The government is aware, the longer this goes on the longer the pain on the other side to try and have to pay for this.
We've been through the initial peak, but it's coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous.
The second stage, which will begin at the earliest at the beginning of June, will try and get even more people out of their homes and back to work. Non-essential shops will open up once again, and more public transport will be running. People will be encouraged to get out and work and be as productive as much as possible.
But not until the third stage hits, until July, would that be actually possible. That's when things like hairdressers, the hospitality industry will be open again with restaurants and hotels opening. But that could still come much later in the summer.
There could be no greater mistake than to jeopardise everything we've striven to achieve by proceeding too far and too fast. We will be driven not by hope or economic revival as an end in itself, but by data and science and public health.
Throughout this process the government has said it has been guided by the science about how and where it can ease the lockdown. But the fact is these decisions are political and economic in their nature. How and when to ease the lockdown is taking decisions about where they can get economic activity moving as quickly as possible.
The big risk for Mr Johnson is seen that he is helping those white-collar workers who can work at home safely, people like journalists, in fact, whereas allowing those people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, the UK's key workers, to go back to work where they are much more likely to pick up coronavirus.
If you're a bus driver, a nurse, or working in a shop, you can't work from home. And when the second and third phase of the easing of the lockdown begins the prime minister has to make sure that those people are protected, they feel safe and secure. Otherwise, a big political backlash awaits.
Mr Johnson's ratings have been very high throughout the coronavirus crisis with big levels of public support for everything he's doing. He'll want to maintain that and make sure he doesn't move too fast and put too many Britons in danger. And most importantly of all, he won't want to see the coronavirus spread out of control again and that death toll increase and the NHS collapse.