Opinion: Boris Johnson will be held accountable for Covid-19 strategies
The FT's chief UK commentator Robert Shrimsley explains why we could be entering the most politically dangerous phase of the coronavirus crisis
Produced by Tom Hannen
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SPEAKER: Boris Johnson is entering the most politically dangerous phase of this crisis. For all the mistakes made at the start-- some of them significant and many of which cost lives, the British public was in a relatively forgiving mood, not least after Mr Johnson's own brush with the virus. It understood the pandemic was not his government's fault and knew mistakes were inevitable.
Now, however, things have changed. Hindsight is no longer relevant, and his government is now accountable for the actions its taken. Voters feel there's been long enough to get things right, yet on a number of issues, the government still feels a few weeks behind where it should be at this point-- be it the establishment of effective contact tracing, turning round test results in 24 hours, or imposing quarantine rules on countries with actually far lower rates of infection. There are days like Wednesday when the number of reported deaths in the UK exceeded those for the rest of the EU put together. At least as important, the prime minister is burning up political goodwill at the precise moment he needs as much of the country to be with him as possible.
The row over his advisor Dominic Cummings' unauthorised journeys during lockdown enrage supporters and enemies alike. The defensive Mr Cummings reduced Mr Johnson's support from the high levels he enjoyed at the start of this crisis to levels around the number he reached at the last election. Many of his own MPs were deeply upset by the incident, which they couldn't justify to their constituents. And this week, he upset even more MPs by insisting on the most cumbersome approach to the return to parliament, effectively removing the right to vote from MPs who are shielding and causing hour-long queues to snake round Westminster as MPs lined up to vote. But more important than all that are the steps the country takes now to come out of lockdown.
Rather like a medic emerging from protective equipment, the transition back to normality is the moment of highest risk-- both for the country and for the government. Leave it too late and untold further damage is done to the economy. Jump too fast and the virus could return with force. This is why the contact tracing programme is so crucial to containing the virus. The UK had to set this up from scratch, but the government announced steps to ease lockdown even before it was solidly in place, with the number of new infections stubbornly high and the death rates to the equivalent of two jumbo jet crashes a week. It is a delicate balancing act, and there are no easy choices.
Without a vaccine, lives cannot be guaranteed, but the country can't remain in lockdown forever. And yet, it is also clear that Mr Johnson's own scientific advisors are concerned at the speed of easing and even more concerned about talk of reducing the two-metre social distancing rule. But ministers have decided the economic damage is simply too great to wait any longer. And they may be right, but people need confidence that it's safe to begin the return to normality. The judgement is that the deaths can be held to bearable levels, but for the economy to revive, people have to trust the government's competence in continuing to control the virus, which is why this was the worst possible time to lose the faith of voters.
For Mr Johnson, the pandemic has moved from being primarily a health crisis to being principally an economic crisis. And the next few years are going to test the faith in this government and the hardship, and mass unemployment that Britain faces would erode support for any government. But the decisions that he takes over the next few weeks could ultimately be the ones which decide his fate.