Katy Balls

Theresa May asks the unanswerable question on Covid-19 at PMQs

Theresa May asks the unanswerable question on Covid-19 at PMQs
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Prime Minister's Questions offered a stark reminder of the situation the UK is in. As a result of coronavirus safety fears, the weekly event was drastically pared down. MPs were only allowed in the Commons Chamber if they were on the order paper – along with the front bench for the Tories and Labour. Those who made it into the Chamber sat far apart.

Jeremy Corbyn used what could be his final turn at the despatch box as Labour leader (pending a decision on early recess) to press the Prime Minister on financial measures for the vulnerable and raise concern over the limited testing of NHS staff for Covid-19. Johnson said progress was being made on developing a test that would say if people had had coronavirus and promised further measures for supporting workers in due course.

A more difficult question came from Theresa May. The former prime minister asked Johnson about the government's long-term strategy given there was not yet a coronavirus vaccine and the UK may struggle to suppress the disease indefinitely:

Theresa May
: My right honourable friend is rightly engrossed in the day to day in dealing with the results of Covid-19. But I'd like to ask him to cast his mind a little further forward. The chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer have been clear that the best solution for this is a vaccine but the chief scientific adviser has said that could be as much as a year away. I believe he's also suggested that until that vaccine is available it may be difficult to ease restrictions successfully. Does my right honourable friend agree with that analysis?

Boris Johnson: The objective of the government and our scientific advisers is to press the peak of the epidemic to make sure we get through so that we come out on the other side and that we do that as fast as possible. That's why we're taking all the measures that we're announcing, that's why we've announced the package of business support that we have. I'm not going to give a timescale on it but that is the strategy and I'm absolutely certain that it will succeed.

This is the crunch point when it comes to the UK government strategy: how long will the public be placed under severe social restrictions? Johnson refused to put a timescale on it at PMQs but government figures worry that the answer that prevents spread is an answer the public will not accept. As James reports on Coffee House, in the coming days and weeks we can expect more restrictions on individuals. However, given that the Imperial College report suggested a vaccine could take 18 months and lifting suppression measures would lead to increased cases, it is currently difficult to say when these could be lifted. Even were the government to wish to keep strict social distancing measures in place indefinitely, the British public could well lose patience and take a different view. 

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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