This week was built up by the Prime Minister to be the moment that would mark the return of economic and social life to robust health. But there was no real attempt by his government to urge people to go back to the office. Even Number 10 has admitted there never was a back to work campaign. In London, the number of Tube journeys made at the beginning of the week — as good an indicator of economic vitality as any — was still far below last year’s levels. In spite of repeated assurances that returning to school is safe and necessary for children’s health, a YouGov poll suggested that nearly one in five parents are still considering keeping their offspring at home. Recent figures from Scotland indicate they are doing precisely that.
If not now, when? The holidays are over, schools are back, but Britain is still behind every other country in Europe in returning to the office. The problem is not that we are a nation of skivers and laggards. The extra-ordinary response to the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme showed just how well people will respond to a coherent, positive message. There is no doubt about the damage being inflicted on our economy and society, the number of businesses going bust, and the coming rise in unemployment, but there is doubt about what best to do.
This reflects doubt at the very top of Downing Street. The Prime Minister is clearly undecided, torn between wishing to stem the rising tide of unemployment and fear of the virus’s return. As a result, the messages are mixed. The government seems trapped in a cycle of uncertainty, failure and constant retreat. What is the long-term strategy? Is the plan to suppress the virus completely or to find ways to live with it? In these uncertain times, we see uncertain leadership.