There is little to celebrate in today’s first anniversary since Britain went into lockdown, but Boris Johnson did try his best to mark it with a positive message about what was to come. The Prime Minister held a press conference in Downing Street this evening where he told the public that he wanted to ‘to thank everybody for their courage, your courage, discipline and patience’, and promised that the government was on track to meet its vaccination targets. He closed by saying: ‘And cautiously but irreversibly, step by step, jab by jab, this country is on the path to reclaiming our freedoms.’
It was striking that he wanted to look forward, speaking about much of the pandemic in the past perfect tense, even though it is very much still happening. Even more striking was that both he and chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned that there would be another surge of the virus soon.
Johnson, Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance were all clear that there was almost zero chance of ever achieving ‘zero Covid’ and that society would merely learn to live with the virus. What the Prime Minister also acknowledged was that there would never really be a ‘job done’ moment when it comes to the lasting effects of the pandemic, telling reporters that he expected society to be dealing with the fallout from Covid 'for as long as I live', and that dealing with the loss of education for children during lockdown was the biggest challenge ahead.
Perhaps one reason the Prime Minister was so keen to look ahead was that reflecting on the past year is not a comfortable exercise for this government. One question that clearly haunts Johnson is whether today really should have been the anniversary of lockdown – or whether it should have come much sooner. But he is not keen to engage in these questions just yet, sticking to his line that there were ‘hard decisions’ and that his biggest lesson so far was that not enough was known about asymptomatic transmission at the start of the pandemic. There will be a ‘right time’ to look back properly, he often says. Even if he wants to stick to the optimistic framing of the pandemic as being something that’s nearly behind us, it does still help the Prime Minister that there’s a long way to go before that’s really true.