Boris Johnson will make this week the toughest decisions of his premiership as he sets out a ‘roadmap’ for the United Kingdom exiting its coronavirus lockdown. While he has much goodwill from the nation after his brush with death, the government is losing public support and much now rests on him getting his calls right in coming days.
Before Johnson was struck down by the virus in March, he and the government were riding high in the polls and given the benefit of the doubt over early handling of the outbreak. This was despite public concerns about issues such as limited reserves of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health care workers, and also the slow start the government made in March and April on testing.
Take the example here of an opinion survey released in late March from Ipsos Mori which found 49 per cent of people then thought the government was tackling the crisis well while 35 per cent believe it was handling it badly. Fast forward a month and public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the exceptionally complex situation has fallen.
Drilling down to the testing issue, in particular, only 15 per cent now believe the government has been handling this well with some 57 per cent disapproving according to Opinium. Several weeks into the crisis, the government is undertaking far less than the quarter of a million tests a day that Johnson had indicated in March would be taking place now.
If the government does proceed with caution in coming days, it will nonetheless have to deliver a very clear and comprehensive roadmap this week for the months ahead.
The testing and PPE issues aside, however, the central decision that Johnson now faces is how far, if at all, he can go in coming days to start lifting the lockdown he imposed last month, while avoiding a second major wave of infections. While the daily death rate is now plateauing, many scientists assert that the rate of UK infection is still high to warrant any big easing up on restrictions,
The daily rate of new infections appears to have peaked last month, but remains relatively high with more than 6,000 new cases on Friday alone. Multiple scientists say that it would be best to get numbers down to a few hundred new cases per day before a comprehensive easing of restrictions is initiated otherwise the newly enhanced contact tracing and testing system currently being prepared for launch by the government could be overwhelmed.
With UK politics continuing to be framed by the pandemic, another reason that the government is on the back foot is that ministers are increasingly being held to account in Westminster not just by a rejuvenated official opposition Labour Party under Keir Starmer’s new leadership, but also from MPs across the political spectrum now that Parliament has returned to session after the Easter recess. The Cabinet is under growing pressure from legislators, including some backbench MPs from the ruling Conservatives who are keen to see the government move faster to rejuvenate the economy.
Normal consumption patterns are disrupted
These Tory MPs are lobbying ministers amid what one of the Bank of England’s top policymakers, Jan Vlieghe, warned recently is already the sharpest shock to the UK economy in several hundred years. The impact is so profound because the virus has created both a supply shock, because people can’t work, and a demand shock, because normal consumption patterns are disrupted.
The good news is that Vlieghe reckons the economy could, in principle, return roughly to its pre-virus trajectory once the pandemic is over. Yet, this future growth will be stifled by what is a massive surge in borrowing to cover the cost of the pandemic.
In this context, several economic forecasters, including the EY Item Club thinktank, have warned that the economy may not return to its pre-pandemic size for years. Even pencilling in a recovery for the second half of the year and significant growth in 2021, the economy may not return to its late-2019 state until 2023.
Yet, despite this gloomy data, the political mood music in Downing Street has remained cautious about any substantial easing of restrictions in May. Senior ministers are concerned about the potential for a second wave of infections as has happened in some Asian countries from South Korea to Singapore.
Yet if the government does proceed with caution in coming days, it will nonetheless have to deliver a very clear and comprehensive roadmap this week for the months ahead. UK ministers are in a tight spot here following the release last month of detailed thinking on these issues from the Scottish administration and its Welsh counterpart underlining that it appears increasingly possible that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could adopt different timelines and approaches for easing the lockdown.
Taken together, Johnson therefore has returned to Downing Street at what could easily prove a ‘make-or-break’ period for his prime ministership. With the pandemic still having the potential to upend UK politics, he could yet be the big beneficiary of this if he gets decisions right, or a major loser if public confidence drains from the government in the weeks to come.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics