Boris Johnson’s swift return to duty is welcome. He has clearly been through a personal nightmare. Given the pressures on him, he deserves sympathy and congratulations. In his address to the nation this morning he was characteristically Churchillian. He says Britain has come through coronavirus so far with flying colours. “Now we must prepare to win phase two as we have won phase one.”
It is hard to know what news the prime minister has been watching or listening to. Johnson’s language was opaque to the point of waffle. The British people are in the dark, more so than any in Europe. Though statistics are still desperately unreliable, all we do know is that Britain has not performed well during the coronavirus pandemic. It is now among the most dilatory nations in securing recovery.
The only strategy mentioned by Johnson was the need to “eliminate the risk of a second spike”. There is no way such a risk can be eliminated, short of never taking it. But it is unacceptable to hamstring the entire economy indefinitely, as Johnson implied, merely to stop further infection “overwhelming our NHS”. The unpreparedness of the NHS has contributed to Britain’s plight. Its future “protection” is not a sufficient reason for the scale of cost now being imposed on the economy. If there is another spike, the NHS must be helped to face it.
The rest of Europe – an entity Johnson despises – is already well advanced into what he presumably means when he says phase two. Yet his speech was empty of specifics. There was no indication of ending the bias against the private care sector, the neglected “poor bloody infantry” of coronavirus. While the cabinet built now largely empty Nightingale hospitals and stalled operations, the elderly and those caring for them were left at serious risk, a glaring failure of a “nationalised” health service. If you want to nationalise welfare, nationalise it all.
Meanwhile the illogicalities of lockdown grow more absurd by the day: the banning of bench-sitting in parks, the closure of rural resorts and beaches, permitting supermarkets to open but not garden centres or small traders. Covid-19 is clearly lethal chiefly to specific sections of the community, yet the current one-size-fits-all shutdown ignores this. And if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can have exit strategies, why not Cornwall or Yorkshire – or England? The government’s lack of trust in English localism is pathological.
A number of hesitant conclusions can already be drawn from the statistics. The virus is highly infectious and sensible distancing seems to mitigate its spread. But national excess deaths above the seasonal average seem largely to relate to demographics, such as age balance, population dispersal and urbanisation. Except in a few atypical cases, widely differing suppression policies have not been reflected in mortality rates.
This virus appears to have peaked in the first week of April, arguably before the full impact of the cabinet’s lockdown can have been felt. Now Johnson – who previously supported mitigation, not suppression – demands that we honour “past efforts and sacrifices”. This is meaningless if he continues with a questionable policy, against the certainty of the toll he is taking on British lives and livelihoods for years to come.
Britons must listen in agony as leaders in Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Brussels and Rome articulate their routes out of this mess. Johnson and his colleagues have articulated nothing.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist