Katy Balls

Boris Johnson’s Covid double act

Boris Johnson's Covid double act
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Boris Johnson used today's press conference to unveil the government's plan for stage four of the roadmap. Announcing that the public need to learn to live with Covid, the Prime Minister declared his intention from 19 July to reopen all remaining businesses, lift limits on gatherings and lift the bulk of rules on wearing a mask. While no final decision on what happens on 19 July will be made until next week, Johnson said it was time to move away from 'legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions'.

Although the contents of the PM's statement points towards a big bang reopening, Johnson's tone was rather more cautious. He warned that by 19 July cases could have reach '50,000 cases detected per day', which means more deaths from Covid are inevitable. While face masks will no longer be mandatory, Johnson suggested that there will still be settings where it would be a good idea to wear one. 

Johnson gave the example of a busy tube train at rush hour as a time when a mask could be sensible, compared to an empty train carriage in the evening when it could be surplus to requirements. He said he would still wear a mask in crowded places as a matter of courtesy. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance went further. Whitty said that with cases on the rise, a mask would be a good idea in indoor settings with people you don't know. On this point, Vallance backed him up. 

After various Labour politicians and scientists sounded alarm over the speed of the reopening, Johnson defended his decision to unlock. Acknowledging that cases are on the rise, Johnson said the pandemic was 'far from over'. However, he said that if he didn't unlock this month, it was unclear when would be a good time this year. He said the summer holidays meant this was the best moment for an exit wave, as it would be more problematic to open up in the autumn and winter.

So is the roadmap irreversible as Johnson once said? The scientific advisers either side of the Prime Minister didn't seem so sure. Whitty spoke again of a difficult winter, pointing to the fact that respiratory viruses peak in the colder months. He said that the Delta variant made everything more challenging. He also said there was a 'really clear consensus' among scientists that a 'degree of social distancing' will be needed even after stage four of the roadmap. Meanwhile, Johnson appeared to concede restrictions could return in some form: 'We will continue to monitor the data and retain contingency measures to help manage the virus during higher risk periods, such as the winter'.

Overall Johnson appeared conflicted during the press conference. On the one hand, he is planning to end nearly all legal restrictions, with details on isolation rules and school bubbles to follow. Yet the PM also tried to distance himself from the idea this marked 'freedom day'. He said this was 'not the moment to go demob happy' or take the rule change to mean it's the end of Covid. 

The decision to move to personal responsibility rather than government edicts rests on the idea that people will continue to act with caution. From the comments today, it's clear that, despite a planned end to restrictions, Johnson believes there remains a bumpy road ahead.