The global response to Covid-19 completely dominated the news this week, with the prime minister providing daily briefings to the country announcing an escalating number of measures to attempt to curb the virus. Similarly, across the world governments are putting into place increasingly draconian laws limiting social contact and free movement to try to slow the spread of the virus. Here are four things to know about the week that coronavirus changed Britain.
What a difference a week makes
It may seem like years ago, but it was only last week that Boris Johnson at Thursday’s press conference told the British people that we should try to carry on as normal. In one of the fastest political U-turns ever, on Monday Johnson recommended that everyone should try to work from home if possible and practice social distancing, limiting non-essential travel and social contact. A few short days later, the prime minster made the unprecedented move to close all schools and colleges across the country indefinitely, cancelling exams for the first time since the system was put in place in 1888.
The rapid change in rhetoric and somewhat hectic rollout of these measures over the course of the last week does suggest that the government was not prepared for this situation to escalate so drastically in such a short period. This time last week the Department of Health and Social Care had confirmed 798 cases of coronavirus and ten deaths, figures that have since increased to 3,269 cases and 144 deaths as of yesterday afternoon. It’s also possible that the new bombshell modelling from Imperial College, which showed the NHS becoming completely overwhelmed in a matter of weeks, resulting in over half a million deaths unless drastic measures were taken, forced the government to rethink its strategy. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the prime minister could not help ending yesterday’s press conference with a war-time call to action, telling the British public that we can ‘turn the tide of this disease’ in 12 weeks. Johnson’s problem is that unlike political negotiations, he cannot talk his way out of a global health crisis and even if the number of infections does start to dip in the next three months, the likelihood of life returning to normal for most people in the country is very low.
As the country tries to predict the next set of steps the government may take to contain the virus, there has been a great deal of reporting on a potential lockdown being enforced in the nation’s capital in the coming days. While the prime minister has urged people to avoid unnecessary social gatherings, the government’s decision not to shut restaurants, bars, pubs and nightclubs has led to some people still choosing to go out anyway. This presents the government with a huge challenge as London is currently the epicentre of the outbreak in the UK, with the number of cases and deaths increasing in the capital each day.
The government is still insisting that it has no immediate plans to lockdown the city, but given that Number 10 stated at the beginning of this week that school closures would be an absolute last resort, it’s easy to see how the public may not be willing to take the government’s word at face value. London mayor Sadiq Khan has also hinted that they are considering more stringent measures to force Londoners to stay inside, confirming that liberties and human rights may have to be ‘infringed’ to successfully save lives. The lack of clarity around the possibility of a London lockdown is coming off the back of growing criticism of how Johnson is handling the communications side of this crisis. While the media and public have largely welcomed the daily briefings, the backlash has started as some question the value of formal announcements in the afternoon when new measures are regularly leaked to the press throughout the day, leaving time for speculation and panic. Looking at how the format of these briefings evolves in the coming weeks will be a good indication of how confident Number 10 is in Johnson’s abilities as a communicator and a leader in a time of national crisis.
Money, money, money
If Rishi Sunak’s budget last week seemed to be turning on the spending taps, this week the floodgates opened. Desperate to stop the UK economy falling into recession, the chancellor on Tuesday said he and the prime minister will do ‘whatever it takes’ to support businesses through this crisis, announcing £330 billion in loans, cash grants of up to £25,000 per business and a three month mortgage holiday. While these kinds of measures would have been seen as drastic this time last month, the government has already come under fired for not doing more to support workers along with those who have just been laid off. Johnson at yesterday’s briefing urged businesses to ‘stand by their employees’, but with no end of the virus in sight, people working in the travel, entertainment and service industries are likely to face months with no stable income.
Today, the chancellor is expected to announce further measures to support income and livelihoods but the specifics of the plan are still unconfirmed. Iain Duncan Smith has put together a proposal to increase benefits rates and make universal credit more generous, but this would only buy the government more time to announce a wider set of measures. Alternatively, the government could choose to go big and provide funds for businesses to keeping paying workers and avoid massive layoffs. Ideas put forward from other political parties, including income guarantee programmes and universal basic income may seem outlandish right now but depending on the length of this crisis, more radical ideas could come into play later down the line. The scale of today’s announcement will indicate how bold Sunak is willing to be having only been in the job for just over a month.
Do not forget about Windrush
In perhaps the most obvious example of burying a bad story in a busy news week, Priti Patel’s Home Office has finally released the long delayed The Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and it is not hard to see why the government has been dreading the report becoming public. The independent inquiry found that the Home Office displayed ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race’ and ‘an overwhelming desire to defend positions of policy and strategy – often at the expense of defending individuals’. The damning findings from the report would no doubt be a huge scandal for any other young government, especially given the recent personal accusations levelled against Priti Patel about bullying members of the civil service. However, given the fact that coronavirus is going to be taking up all the political oxygen for the foreseeable future, the government may be successful in limiting the damage this story can do.
What is next?
Given the complete transformation we have seen in the government’s approach to COVID-19 over the last week, the events of the week ahead are unknown and uncertain and could change drastically depending what is announced each day at the prime minister’s daily briefings. While the government may decide to hold off on more severe measures to see if the current guidance is having an impact on the spread of the virus, it’s likely that things are going to get worse before they get better.