Less than a month ago, Britons were warned to “go back to work or risk losing your job” as Boris Johnson called for a return to offices.
Today, Dominic Raab is predicting that the UK “could end up in a national lockdown” once again if the government’s latest social distancing measures fail to curb raising coronavirus infection rates.
The foreign secretary told Sky News that a second shutdown “is what we want to avoid” but remains in Downing Street’s “arsenal” of options – a description that tallies with his boss’ comments about another shutdown being akin to a “nuclear deterrent”.
But while the extreme measure is unpopular, Johnson is “walking a tightrope as he plots a route through the Covid crisis”, says The Telegraph’s associate editor Camilla Tominey.
‘A struggle humanity must win’
Almost 17 million people tuned in to watch a televised address last night in which the prime minister “urged the nation to summon discipline, resolve and a spirit of togetherness to meet a second wave of coronavirus this winter”, reports The Times.
Warning of “difficult months to come”, Johnson said that “he could not rule out a second national lockdown if people failed to follow the tougher restrictions he had earlier announced in the Commons”, the newspaper continues.
That message was echoed this morning by Raab, who in a “stark warning to the public” cautioned that if the new coronavirus rules are not followed, Britain could face a second lockdown by Christmas, says The Telegraph.
Another 4,926 people in the UK tested positive for Covid-19 yesterday, the highest daily figure since 7 May. A further 37 people have also died within 28 days of testing positive – the highest tally of fatalities in a single day since 14 July.
It’s beginning to look a lot like lockdown
Back in July, Johnson predicted a “significant return to normality” by Christmas – a comment he may come to rue if he fails to deliver lower infection rates ahead of the festive season.
Earlier this month, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that the UK’s trajectory of positive cases was “extremely similar” to that of France and Spain, two of the European countries worst-affected by the second wave of Covid cases.
Whitty hammered home that point this week, at a televised press conference, where the country was told to be “prepared for significant restrictions for the next six months, over the winter period when the virus can be expected to flourish”, The Guardian reports.
Raab’s subsequent intervention came as “critics blasted the government” for failing to take “responsibility for the spike in cases despite ministers presiding over numerous chaotic U-turns and policy changes in recent months”, says the Daily Mail.
And with discontent already spreading among Tory MPs – who according to the newspaper, are describing the government’s response as a “total shambles” – Johnson will be anxious to avoid becoming the PM who stole Christmas.
Covid curbing growth
Doves in Johnson’s cabinet have lost the immediate battle over lockdown, says Politico’s Alex Wickham, who reports that “several Cabinet ministers, MPs, devolved leaders and the mayor of London” have asked “whether his latest restrictions go far enough”.
After “two days locked in meetings” with ministers and scientists, the PM instead “sided more with the hawks” in government “who wanted to protect the economy and the hospitality industry from a wider crackdown”, Wickham writes.
But the financial impact of further restrictions is already being felt, with the UK’s recovery from lockdown No.1 “losing momentum even before the announcement of new restrictions to control the spread of the virus”, says The Guardian’s economic editor Larry Elliott.
“The closely watched monthly estimates from Cips/Markit found the level of activity at its lowest since June,” Elliott continues, with “the outlook for business at its weakest since May and jobs being shed at a rapid rate”.
So what happens next?
Johnson remains stuck between a rock and a hard place.
As The Telegraph’s Tominey notes, the PM “faces backlash” whatever he does, either “from those who think he has gone too far – or those who think he has not gone far enough”.
“Like the rest of the country, ministers are hoping Thursday’s launch of the new NHS tracing app will help avoid further curbs on people’s civil liberties,” she says. But the cabinet, and the country, remains divided over what steps to take – “hence the need to constantly occupy the middle ground”.
Johnson’s latest list of restrictions come into effect tomorrow. But sources around No. 10 tell Politico’s Wickham that they may be just the “first decisive step” ahead of more measures.